Italian Adventures: Siena, San Gimignano & Amalfi Coast

25 Jul

I left my laptop at my Florence apartment this weekend so get ready because this is going to be a long post.

Let’s take it back to last Wednesday when we went to Siena & San Gimignano. Siena is a small town that is divided into 17 neighborhoods, all of which are tied to some sort of animal mascot (the catapillar, the goose, the unicorn, the dragon, etc.) Every year, 10 of these neighborhoods compete in a bareback horse race around the main piazza and the winning neighborhood gets to hang their flag all around for months afterward. This year the goose won. Also of note is the church that is home to the relics of St. Katherine. St. Katherine was from this town and at the age of 6 started seeing visions of Christ and Mary. She also came down with a case of stigmata. She was able to talk the Pope into relocating back to Rome from Paris and was eventually granted sainthood. About 5 years after she died, a priest dug up her body and took her head and one of her thumbs, covered them in wax and now her body parts are on display in the church we visited. Unfortunately, no pictures were allowed. But I can tell you that these body parts that were admittedly covered in wax looked much more realistic than the “un-decomposed body” in St. Peter’s Basillica in the Vatican. Just sayin’.


Siena's piazza for horse racing

Next we went to San Gimignano – another small Italian city that was absolutely gorgeous. Everywhere you looked, you had an amazing vista. The city was so quaint and cute with a small piazza whose centerpiece was a wishing well. Also, it’s home to the best gelato in the world (it has the awards to prove it – however, I think the gelato I had in Rome is still better). We weren’t given much history about this town, but it sure was a great place to just ‘be.’ Right before we left, Sarah and I were sitting on a wall overlooking this:

In beautiful San Gimignano

I looked at her and said, “How lucky are we to be sitting on a wall somewhere in Italy just staring at this gorgeous view in the middle of the day on a Wednesday? Not worried about anything, really. Just being.” It was great.

The best? Notice it hasn't won in a few years...

San Gimignano

Then, Thursday I woke up and felt like Hell. I nearly cried in the shower because the steam wasn’t helping my sinuses like it had been in the days before. I was able to get dressed, pack, go to class and find a pharmacy before leaving for the weekend. I got my hands on a decongestant and was ready to face the weekend, sick or not sick. The bus for the 8-hour drive was FREEZING. I was in shorts, a tee and sandals. And sick. I only had my towel to use as a blanket. I asked them to turn down the air (as I clearly looked ill and half-way frozen) and they didn’t oblige. Then, at 2 am our bus broke down about 3 miles from the hotel. Another bus had to come and pick us up and take us the last few miles to the hotel before we finally checked in around 2:30 am.

You should have seen the hotel room in this “3-star hotel.” The room had 3 twin beds with about 3 inches in between each and…that’s about it. Fortunately, Sarah and I loved our third roomie Mo from Penn State. We all got about 3 hours of sleep before heading out to Capri the next day.

Capri was b-e-a-utiful. Perfect blue waters, bright blue sky, big white puffy clouds – just gorgeous. Only the bus and trains were on strike so we had to hike up hundreds of steps to get anywhere (I’m still sick at this point) but I did it and it was lovely to lie on the beach and put my feet in the crystal waters.


Happy Shannon on a boat

Happy Shannon on a beautiful beach

Gorgeous view of Capri

Then we headed back for dinner – which is a whole other story.

We were told our dinner would be a pasta dish followed by a meat dish with vegetables and dessert was generally seasonal fruit – lovely! I was stoked – meat and fresh veg and fruit are hard to come by in Italy. We sit down to dinner and the pasta was fine. Then the meat dish came out. It was a slice of pork loin with gravy (that looked like a TV dinner) and french fries. That’s right. Fries. Apparently, fried sliced potatoes equate to vegetables at this hotel. Our whole table could barely contain their giggle when the waiter came out with plates of french fries and pork loin. It was ridiculous!! At least we still had dessert. The waiter pulled over a cart with a basket of whole oranges and offered them to our table and I thought, “Oh ok, to cleanse our pallet.” And as I took my orange I had another thought and looked at the rest of my table mates and asked, “Is this the seasonal fruit?” We looked around and yes, yes it was. We sat there, peeling our seasonal fruit, cracking up at the absurdity of this 3-star-hotel meal. There wasn’t even presentation with the oranges. I mean, if they had come out on a plate of their own, peeled and sliced with a small cup of cream to dip them in it would have been much easier to swallow the idea of an orange as ‘seasonal fruit dessert.’ But no, we had to sit there and peel our dessert laughing all the way.

The next day was Positano, a beach city along the southern coast. Again, I woke up feeling like Hell. The medicine I bought only made it so my nose was now a faucet. My throat hurt, my glands were swollen, my eyes were puffy and I had liquid snot falling out of my face. I was ready to throw in the towel. Until I talked to Samantha, a housemate of mine from Florence who was also on the trip. She went to the doctor in Florence for a cough. He said she had no inflammation in her throat but still gave her an antibiotic. I asked her if it was helping her and she said no. I asked her if she still had some and she said yes. I then made an executive decision. I’d give her my decongestant to clear up whatever was in her chest causing her to cough in return for her antibiotics for my infection. Deal. I was suddenly amped to take on the day. Until it started raining at the beach. I wasn’t actually planning on going in the water (not good for head colds) but the inclimate weather (rain for 10 min, sunny for 30, rain for 10, sunny for 30) made it hard to do anything for the 5 hours we had to spend in this town. Finally, we made it back to the hotel where we had another lovely dinner followed by ‘seasonal fruit.’

The black sand beach at Positano

At Positano

Sunday was our last day there and after we checked out of the hotel, we headed to Pompeii. This was amazing. The ruins were spectacular. This town was the flourishing during the height of the Roman Empire. Rich people during that time went to Pompeii for vacation. Jesus Christ was running around talking about being the messiah. Incredible. In 79 A.D., Mt. Vesuvius erupted over 3 days covering the entire city in ash and preserving it for us to trapse through today. I walked on 2,000-year-old streets and tile mosaics. I wandered through a 2,000-year-old bath house and brothel. I saw what could possibly be the first “Beware of Dog” sign. And I saw the plastered corpses of some of the victims of that tragedy. The people died from toxic gases from the volcano and the ash preserved the bodies’ shapes. Because everything but the bones decomposed under the ash, archaeologists injected the ash casts with plaster to preserve them. You can still see the emotion on the faces – the fear, the pain, the helplessness. As sad as it is, it’s incredible to have a window into an event like that. It’s more poignant than the YouTube videos of any natural disaster we have today.

Pompeii victim

2,000-year-old mosaic that says "Beware of Dog" in Latin

Then we climbed to the summit of Mt. Vesuvius, which is now 3,500 feet shorter than it was during Pompeii’s heyday. It was cold and foggy, so we didn’t have a great view into the crater (which is still active) but I was able to grab some pumice from Vesuvius and say that I’ve been to the top. Then we made the 8-hour bus ride home.

The view from Mt. Vesuvius

At the top of Mt. Vesuvius

After 4 doses of the antibiotics I scored in my illegitimate drug deal, I feel amazing. All things considered, it was a great weekend.


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