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Sorrento to Siena

ITALY | Monday, 1 April 2013 | Views [1571]

Our last day in Sorrento, we actually had to add a day to our hotel stay just so we could see the town we were actually staying in. It poured rain. We decided to visit the intarsia museum (inlaid wood), as Sorrento is known for its extremely high quality inlaid wood. On the way to the museum, ducking under awnings to avoid the rain, we came across a shop selling all inlaid wood products. Everything in the store was handmade, and the business had been there for several generations. The woman working there spoke perfect English, and she told us that the art of handmade inlaid wood in Sorrento is dying due to mass produced products being brought in from China. She told us that there used to be a reputable inlaid wood academy in town, but it closed because there were no students. Perhaps this somewhat sad story was a ploy to get me to buy something, or perhaps it was the truth as similar things are happening in so many other places in the world, but whatever the real story is, I bought something. A music box, with cats on the front, that plays the song Memory from the musical Cats. They actually had to switch out the music so that I could have the box and the tune that I wanted. I didn’t ask them to do that, they just said they would (‘they’ being the woman and the young guy making things at the back of the shop).

The inlaid wood museum was interesting, if a bit creepy. We were practically the only people in the museum, and there were rooms full of ominous looking inlaid wood furniture. Plus, when you left a room the lights automatically shut off. The images created with tiny pieces of wood though, were something to marvel at. One of the many lost arts of things that take a long time to create. I remember in the documentary ‘It Might Get Loud”, Jack White said something like: “Art should be a struggle, it should make you work at it otherwise everyone would do it. That’s the problem with art these days; ease of use.” He is not wrong. Imagine if buildings still took 300 years to build? Or if artwork was commissioned just for you, instead of bought in Walmart? It boggles the mind to think how many things we’ve lost due to ease of use.

We left the museum and went into the first restaurant we saw, to get out of the rain. In Southern Italy it seems that most restaurants have sort of tented eating areas that I imagine get opened up in the hot summer months. This one was no different, and it had a cheesy beach feel, with shell/sand centerpieces on the tables. There weren’t too many people in the restaurant, a couple of tables, one Italian, and one British. A woman came in by herself after we had ordered, greeted all the staff like she knew them, and sat in a corner table puffing on an e-cigarette. She had an impressive amount of plastic surgery, and big poofy blonde hair. She was pretty amazing.

Our lunch at this restaurant was outstanding. One of the best meals we had in Italy. It was the antipasti and the dolce that really stood out. The dolce was pear ricotta with a ginger sauce and fresh berries. It was unbelievable. The antipasti was amazing too I just can’t remember exactly what was in it. I’ll post a picture.

That was really it for our last day in Sorrento, mom bought new boots to replace the shoes she brought that hurt her back, but otherwise it was a pretty quiet last day.


Our original plan on our travel day to Siena was to first visit the Pompei museum in Naples. This museum houses all the artefacts uncovered in the buried city. I have always wanted to see the buried bodies, as I think they are a very creepy and real connection to something that happened 2000 years ago. I like to be creeped out by such things. However, after an hour trolley ride from Sorrento to Naples, watching the quality of the housing deteriorate outside the window to the point of shantytowns lining the rail line, we decided that we would skip it and move straight on to Siena. Seeing those shantytowns, with plastic roofs and blankets for walls, made us both feel sad that such places exist in a country that is supposed to be developed. I suppose all developed nations experience some degree of poverty that tourists rarely see, but I’ve never seen anything like what we saw on the outskirts of Naples.

The city of Naples, as we had been warned, was extremely gritty and uncomfortable. Especially after seeing what we saw. We both felt that we needed to move on, despite reading that the city would grow on us and that the people of Naples were extremely friendly. We didn’t have time for the city to grow on us.

We took the train north to Siena instead, in the region of Tuscany. Siena is a beautiful medieval town sitting on a hill surrounded by vineyards and castles. It is the home of the Paleo, the annual horse race in Piazza del Campo, the shell-shaped plaza in the centre of the walled city. Every year each district enters a jockey and a horse to race around this oddly shaped plaza. It is a crazy, crowded, exciting gathering that I’m glad we missed. We would never have been able to do what we did had the Paleo been happening.

Our hotel in Siena was a lovely old residence-turned-hotel that had a back terrace overlooking the endless fields and villas, separated by the tall spear-shaped trees Tuscany is famous for. I never got tired of looking at that view. The woman at the front desk was the friendliest and most helpful front desk person we’d had so far, and the breakfast was one of the better ones.

On our first day in Siena, we decided to wander the town, see the cathedral and climb the MangiaTower. The morning threatened rain, but by the time we were climbing it was bright and sunny with a healthy gust of wind blowing fresh Tuscan air. The climb to the viewing platform was pretty tiring for two people who haven’t been doing much exercise (and have been eating a lot). We did make it, and the view was spectacular. I climbed up into the bell tower, which had an even steeper, more sketchy staircase and a even more amazing view. We stayed up there quite a while, just enjoying the amazing scenery: red brick houses with terra cotta roofs, nestled in the landscape in an almost fluid fashion. Beyond that were the green fields and tall trees we could see from our hotel terrace. We also could see the cathedral, as you always can in medieval Italian towns, white and black and standing out from the terra cotta like a jewel in the crown of Siena. The cathedral was our next stop. The stairway down the tower, the same one we climbed up, was now occupied by some people trying to climb and it was a challenge to pass by in the narrow stairwell. It was slightly awkward trying to manoeuvre around them without being at least slightly inappropriate.

We meandered to the cathedral and purchased a ticket that gained us entry to the basilica, the crypt, the museum, and the chapel. We started with the basilica, which from the outside was another amazing feat of architecture with impressive sculpture and marble and decoration stretching up to the clouds. What was really impressive about this cathedral though, was the inside. The entire inside of Siena cathedral, except for the roof and the floor, is black and white stripes. The columns, the walls where there aren’t paintings, the arches and even the bell tower outside are striped like a zebra. It’s like nothing else I’ve ever seen. The floor is decorated in black and white as well, and depicts different imagery such as the medieval cities of Italy, or a story of ancient Rome. All in black and white marble. It was pretty spectacular. The crypt was interesting, as it was from a different period, and as such the frescoes were not in good shape, and their heads were cut off where they built the cathedral on top. This happens several times in Italy that we have seen, where someone in one century builds something, and someone in another century builds over top of it. We have been told that in those days, the buildings were just considered ‘old’ and not ‘ancient’ or ‘sacred’ or ‘worth saving.’ Luckily there are still some remnants left of this part of history. The chapel was somewhat stripey, but mostly just elaborately painted with images that defied perspective so that you couldn’t look at them without wondering if they were a flat surface.

We went for dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by the woman at the front desk of our hotel, and it was again superb. We had gorgonzola ravioli and wild boar ragout, one of the few meals I actually remember what we ordered. Then it was off to bed, to prepare for the Tuscan wine tour the next day!



Tags: cathedral, intarsia, siena, sorrento, stripes

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