This week, Joe and I spent more time exploring the charms of Siena. It was relaxing for us after our past weekend of traveling and we were grateful for the chance to catch up on our rest while the others were off visiting new places.
Wednesday after class, everyone walked down to the very heart of Siena for a tour of Gino Cacino’s ham, cheese, and wine shop. Dr. Parker told us that this year was the first time they had tried this tour. Gino turned out to be the friendliest, most enthusiastic, and helpful shop owner we had yet encountered. The experience was not so much a tour as it was an explanation, with several colorful visuals, of how Gino and his employees make cheese and age ham right in their shop. We didn’t get to look in the back where the work actually took place, but with the help of Luca’s translations –Gino didn’t seem to speak a word of English—we soon had a general understanding of the process for aging cheese and ham.
The best part was when Gino brought out trays of salami, prosciutto, goat cheese, and parmesan for us to taste. Prosciutto is actually slices of aged and cured ham that are eaten uncooked. It makes delicious sandwiches or snacks with cheese and bread. I had never tried goat cheese before, but it was even better than the parmesan. We also tried red and white wine, as well as some dessert wine that we dipped pieces of biscotti into in the traditional Italian fashion. Biscotti are basically any kind of cookie, but the ones we tried were specifically crunchy and had sliced almonds mixed into them.
Gino was generous with his samples and we took our time munching while taking photos and examining his shop. He had one wall with several magazine clippings about his work and his shop. We determined that he is fairly famous in the area and he definitely deserves his excellent reputation. To thank him for his hospitality, several of us bought wine and cheeses from his shop to take back to our residences for later.
On Friday afternoon, Joe and I were scheduled to take the wine-tasting tour that we had missed the week before. We went into town early to eat lunch and check our messages online. When we returned to the bus stop to find our tour guide and the tour bus, we nearly missed the whole thing for a second time. We had been told to look for the tour guide that our classmates had had on their trip, but no one who couldpossibly be guiding a wine tour matched the description of the man we had been given. While we were searching, a group began to form in front of the pub where we were told to meet our tour guide. I overheard one woman talking about a wine tour and Joe recognized some of the girls from our local school Dante Alighieri. By the time we finally asked the woman who appeared to be in charge, they were boarding the bus for departure.
After several tense minutes of explanation and a few phone calls by the woman to her tour company, we were told we could join the tour. Apparently we had the wrong information about the tour guide, and we didn’t even know the name of the company, but Valencia, the actual tour guide for that day, was glad to have us after the confusion was cleared up.
The tour began with an exhilarating ride over rolling hills and around sharply bent roads. Fortunately the weather held out for most of the trip and the sunshine made the landscape all the more glorious. In Florida, or at least in Daytona Beach, there is not much landscape to enjoy. But the Tuscany region is made up of the most gorgeous vistas –carefully rowed vineyards broken by patches of olive groves and small hamlets with their quaint homes and shops. We stopped at the top of a very high hill, looking out on these sights in both directions, in order to allow us tourists to enjoy the view and take memorable photos.
Next we visited a little town called Radda in Chianti which seemed to be about a tenth the size of Siena. You could walk every street in about twenty minutes and surely everyone who lives there knows one another. The small size added to its charm and Joe and I quickly found ourselves enjoying the local shops. We had just enough time to find a few gifts for friends, take some lovely photos, and walk back to the tour bus.
The next stop was smaller still, not even a town, just a tiny hamlet among the vineyards and hills. There weren’t even any shops for us to browse and the total population was only about fifty people. We followed the tour guide on a brief, informal walk through one side of the hamlet and back up the other, just to get a taste of the simplicity of life there.
Finally we made our last stop at the main base of operations for Castello D’albola, the major wine maker of the area. The office and some of the wine cellars are located in the actual castle building. We wereshown three different locations of wine barrels holding wine in the aging process. Then we entered the office area where the wine tastings are held. We tried five different kinds of wine altogether but even more than the wines, I really enjoyed the olive oil. It tasted almost like some sort of grape syrup, possibly due to the fact that we tried if after sampling all the wine. I couldn’t help but make a purchase for myself and my family.
The next day Joe had made plans to meet up with his Italian skateboarding friend, Elisseo. The two had met on an online forum for finding others interested in extreme sports. When Joe decided he would be going to Italy, it worked out nicely as Elisseo lives in the outskirts of Siena.
I joined Joe and Elisseo for the skating session, but only to take photos and watch. While I have come far in my skateboarding skills, I am still nowhere near able to manage the hills that Joe enjoys. The particular hill they had chosen for that day was a little narrow but very long with a steep enough incline to get moving quite fast. The surrounding area was beautiful with many wildflowers, a small vineyard, and mountains visible in the distance. Joe and Elisseo spent about two hours skating the hill while I amused myself with my camera.
Later that evening, Joe and I took the bus into town to explore the possibility of enjoying an Irish music festival. In the process of locating the festival, we discovered that there is quite a large area of Siena that is grassy and covered in plants. It lies to the southeast of the city center, the exact area which we had not yet had reason to visit. We also found the most breathtaking view of Siena and the surrounding countryside visible from a park not far from the school where we study. When the music finally started we enjoyed the lively rhythms of an Irish fiddle, a cello, and a guitar played by a couple of Irish women who call themselves the Clover Duo. We also enjoyed a glass of Guinness and some traditional Irish jacket potatoes before taking our leave of the festival.
There are now two weeks left in the study abroad program and I can feel myself getting a little homesick. But there are still a few more adventures to be had before we prepare to head back to Florida and I know we will make the best of them that we can.