Friday, June 10, 2011


Santa Catarina Garden View
We arrived in the Siena Province town of Chiusi after bidding a fond farewell to Ben’s relatives in Ancona. We miss them already! Our friend and excellent Italy tour guide, Roberto Bechi, was at the train station as promised and took us northwest to Siena through the rolling hills and valleys of the Tuscan landscape. Train connections from Ancona to Siena aren’t very good (3 am departures, long layovers, etc.), whereas we could buy an easy one-connection train ride to Chiusi via Bologna with a more reasonable schedule. Disembarkation was less than easy, but I’ll save that story for another posting.

 Roberto had booked us at the absolutely charming Hotel Santa Caterina just south of the Porta Romana. The hotel director, Lorenza, could not have been more helpful and cheerful, making every guest feel especially welcome and important. The hotel features 22 rooms, an elevator, and both a sunny breakfast room and garden overlooking the countryside. You’d never know you were in walking distance to the center of Siena. The road from our hotel to the city center changes names several times; however, it’s a primary roadway with all the conveniences a traveler could want: an ATM, a grocery store, a regular laundry, and—most importantly—a gelateria every hundred feet. Can’t get enough gelato in Italy.

Ben and I have visited Tuscany many times, including Siena, so our first stop was to the local self-service laundry just a few steps from Il Campo. It had been a long trip!  Since we had already seen many of the most frequented sites, Roberto recommended that we go to the Santa Maria della Scala Museum. For such a nondescript entry off the main square of the Duomo, this multi-level former hospital is a gem, housing a lovely chapel, amazing frescoes, an underground archaeological museum, the Art Museum for Children, the Giuliano Briganti Library and Photo Library of Art, and more nooks and crannies in its labyrinthine lower levels than I could ever have imagined. While there were plenty of people in the square and entering the Duomo and Duomo Museum (Museo dell’Opera a Panorama), the smaller crowds we encountered in the “hospital” museum made for a very enjoyable visit.
Casalciccia Breakfast Room View

Roberto invited us to dinner at his home one night, and it was a treat to see his wife Patti and their two children again. They are in the process of building a bed and breakfast next door to their present home that is scheduled for completion in October. Both buildings are perched on a hilltop near Asciano, about 13 km from Siena on Via Lauretana. This is the most photographed roadway in Italy for calendars, books, and in commercials. As a matter of fact, it had been closed for awhile recently when Volvo rented the whole road to film a commercial endorsement with George Clooney! The B&B, to be named Casalciccia, will house 10 guests, and Roberto can book them as part of a tour package or simply as a B&B. Travelers not using his touring services are certainly welcome, although they will need transportation from the B&B to surrounding areas.

Sandra and Roberto
One day, Roberto invited us to join him on a tour he’d arranged for another couple. It was fun returning to some places again and a joy to visit new ones. Since he is an Etruscan expert, he again took us to the archeological museum in Chinciano Terme. This time, we listened more closely and learned a lot more about this civilization of ancient Italy. Lunch brought a return the amazing Podere Il Casale organic farm and restaurant in Pienza. The owner, Sandra, never fails to lay out a spread of certified organic foods that will be the best you’ve ever tasted—from tomatoes, beans, and fresh springtime-only Pecorino cheese to proscuitto, pasta and wine. 
Lynn and Cesare

We visited the Contucci winery in Montepulciano and topped off our wine-tasting event with a surprise even for Ben and me. Just a few steps away was the Bottega del Rame, a copper workshop owned and operated by Cesare and Iolanda Mazzetti who inherited the business from their ancestors and now continue a long family tradition in copper crafting begun in 1857. This delightful octogenarian creates copperware that is as beautiful as it is functional--and I received a wonderful copper souvenir of our visit with him!  Roberto took Cesare with him to Portland, Maine, June 9-11, for the Italian Life Expo to demonstrate his skill and perhaps inspire others to help keep such time-honored craftsmanship alive for future generations. If you are in that area this weekend, stop by and say hello to Roberto, Cesare, and all of Rick Steves’ friends. 

For our final night in Siena, we finished a bottle of Chianti and picked up some local cheese, San Daniele prosciutto, and bread, and savored a few more hours in the Santa Caterina courtyard. It doesn’t get any better than that.

I’ll add a further review of our AMA Waterways cruise, some tips for traveling for the mobility- challenged, and a few pointers on traveling by train in my next posts. In the meantime, you can tell that Ben and I love Italy and visit often. That means we have the knowledge you need to book travel to that special part of the world—call us when you’re ready to go!

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