Sunday, July 7, 2013

Siena, Italy

Last Visited: 1999

Bella Siena!

Siena is an ancient village in the heart of the hills of Tuscany, with an amazing medieval fortress, a glorious cathedral with green and white bands of marble, and a large piazza in the centre of town where they run the legendary Palio di Siena horse race around the piazza every summer.

We arrived in Siena about 9pm in the evening after spending the day exploring Firenzé (Florence), most notably the Uffizzi Gallery and the Tomb of the Medicis. Siena was only about 70 km, or 50 miles, from Firenzé so it was the logical place to spend the night before our long drive to Rome the next day, where we were due to fly out on the next leg of our journey.

As we passed through the village, we spotted signs pointing toward a bed and breakfast, so we followed them to a large villa in a private setting among the hills. Fortunately they had a vacant room, and we had a good night’s sleep. The next morning I discovered that our room had a small balcony overlooking the grounds of the villa, which were covered in flowering bushes and trees in a very rustic setting.

We set out that morning to explore Siena, but our first priority was to go to a bank and get some cash. The magnetic stripe on our bank card had worn out (imagine that) and the last place it had worked was in Venice. I called our bank, told them we were in the middle of Italy and the card was worn out, and they told us to simply go to any bank and they would give us cash, as it was linked to a Mastercard. Only it turned out not to be so simple when in a medieval village!

We found the narrow high street (or main street) where all the banks were located together, and walked into the foyer of the first one. Once in the foyer there was a group of security doors that were like small booths – only one person could walk into the booth at a time, a door closed behind you, and then … nothing. The door behind me opened again. Hmmm. I stepped back out, and my wife tried. The same thing happened to her. Then a man leaving the bank pointed to my pockets, indicating that I should take everything metal out of my pockets and put it in a locker on the wall. Okay, we did this, and tried once more. Again, the inner doors didn't open. We could see the staff of the bank on the other side of the door, gesturing for us to go away. They had deliberately locked the security doors, and even a local who tried to pass through was locked out until we left.

Okay. So we left, but now we knew the routine. We entered the foyer of the next bank, took everything metal out of our pockets and put them in a locker, and magically passed through the set of security doors without any problem. Now we were in the bank, and approached the two tellers. They were serving other customers, so we stood waiting our turn. No, they said, we could not stand there. I looked at them quizzically, and they pointed to the chairs against the wall and said we must sit down. So we did. When it was our turn, we explained to them that the magnetic stripe on the bank card was worn out, and Mastercard had told us they could give us some money. No, they said, go outside and use the automatic teller machine. I said it won’t work in the ATM because the magnetic stripe is worn out, but they could use the credit card numbers on the card to give us a cash advance. They refused point blank and sent us away. We didn't even try at the next bank down the road. Thank goodness we had other credit cards we could use.

The funny thing is that when arrived at the next destination of our journey, Jerusalem (see posting below), and went to a bank, the only security the bank had was a guard with an Uzzi, and from a desk in the middle of the floor they gladly gave us as much money as we wanted from our worn out Mastercard.

Anyway, we were highly amused by the Italian banking system, and decided not to let it get us down.

We drove to the city centre, parked the car and visited the amazing Duomo di Siena Cathedral, built in the 1200s with green and white bands of marble, then wandered through the narrow streets to the piazza.

On our way out of town, we stopped at the Fortezza Medicea, an imposing fortress on a hill, built in 1561 by the Spanish-allied Duke of Florence after his triumphant defeat of the republic of Siena. A flat-topped rectangular structure with walls about 10 meters (35 feet) high, each corner has elaborate spear-shaped bastions designed to give line-of-fire protection to each exposed wall. We wandered up to the top and found a quiet restaurant on top of the fortress, and next to the restaurant was an open doorway that led down into the bowels of the fortress. Naturally we went in, and found ourselves inside an enormous former dungeon that was now filled with hundreds of racks and tens of thousands of bottles of wine. The central passage and the dungeon cells were packed with row after row after row of wine racks. It was very tempting to dust off a couple of bottles and take them with us, but we resisted temptation and found a door which led through the outer wall and back to the car park.

View of the Fortezza Medicea, Siena