Italian Memories

Monday, June 6, 2005 - Part I written by Julie Beyler; Siena Journal

After two 'action packed' days in Rome, we were happy to arrive in the small town atmosphere of Montecatini. Domenico and I debated the possibilities of day side trips - Pisa, Luca, Siena, San Gimigano. Siena won out. So all but 12 or so of us got on our familiar Zanconato tour bus and headed for the medieval town of Siena, Italy. Here is a bit of its history. I'd like to tell you I remembered all this from our Domenico's information, but I did a little Internet research as well! Siena was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony known as Saena Julia. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it flourished as one of the major cities of Europe, growing rich from banking and the wool trade. The fourteenth century saw a great amount of building; the Duomo, Palazzo Pubblico and the Campo were all begun then, but in 1348 the Black Death struck and this, together with subsequent political upheaval, saw the beginning of a drastic downturn in Siena's fortunes. The city became little more than a rural market centre, and, as with San Gimignano, it was the growth of tourism that saw a return to wealth and prominence. Indeed, it was exactly this marked decline that accounts for the incredible state of medieval preservation that Siena exhibits today. Because Siena is built across several hills and valleys, and much of it is pedestrianized (or what passes for it here), there is a fair bit of up and down walking involved in seeing the sights. However, the lack of traffic makes it a wonderful place to wander - even when packed with tourists it feels pretty quiet and easygoing. From the Campo it is fairly easy to get your bearings. This spectacular shell-shaped space is the focal point of the city, the meeting place and the market place as well as being the venue for the Palio. The 'shell' is divided into nine segments, alluding to the Council of Nine who ruled the city in its heyday, and is surrounded with buildings with great beauty.

Let it pour.

It started out a sunny day, so not many of us took our trusty rain gear along. Of course, that meant on our way to the cathedral the skies opened up. We all lamented that our rain gear was at home in our suitcases (staying dry), but bravely headed up the hill to the Cathedral, Santa Maria Assunta. Soon the rain came in earnest and I begged and borrowed any overhead protection I could get. First came John Hancock's generous sharing of his yellow plastic (a fashion statement of its own). After that I spotted Kristine's silver umbrella and sidled in beside her. By this time we were nearly in the doors of the Cathedral. For some great pictures of the Cathedral - go to www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/sienacath/duomo.html A spectacular gothic cathedral with an elaborately carved exterior, considered by many to be one of the most beautiful churches in Italy. Lunch on the Piazza del Campo (the "in place" to meet for lunch) was deelightful! In the 1200s, it was the site of the Palio horse races. The first horse to cross the finish line (with or WITHOUT its rider) was the winner. For some pictures of the Piazza check out www.welcometuscany.it/tuscany

Peg Jim, Frank, Greg, Katrina, Allen and I shared our first Italian pizza at an outdoor restaurant under the comfortable burgundy awnings. The rain stopped for us to enjoy a street mime/comedian. He provided LOTS of laughs for the "audience" (those who had stopped to eat around the area) as he played tricks on the unsuspecting passersby. It was a great way to spend the lunch hour. Greg tried the much-touted Black Rooster Chianti of that region. We all had a taste. Good stuff!

Gathering the herd.

Frank, always with an eye for fresh fruit, came to the table with a bag of lovely fruit. When I appeared green with envy and offered him some cash, he went off to bring back some bananas and peaches for our stash. I remember being glad Greg joined us for lunch. I thought at the time, it might be one of the last times I can have lunch with him. Of course, there had to be gelato after lunch!

At the appointed time (I'm not sure we were ALL showing up on time yet), we met Domenico in the middle of the square, counted off and headed back toward the bus. With so much scenery along the way, John Kouka "got lost" again and Kris trailed behind to wait for him to catch up. The rest of us sat on some steps at the top of the hill and waited. When we were all gathered in one place, we walked along the street to the bus, enjoying the banks of flowers to our left and the pastoral scenery. It was a lovely day in Siena - rain or shine!

Monday, June 6, 2005 - Part II written by Kate Stout; Montecatini Journal

When we first drove into Montecatini-Terme on the afternoon of June, 5, 2005, I was unaware of my surroundings as I was in the midst of a severe allergic reaction.

My first recollection of June 6 was being awakened in the middle of the night (out of my Benadryl-induced coma), by my roommate to make sure I was alive and able to communicate coherently. I probably scared Phyllis as much or more than she scared me, but I easily fell back into my drugged state.

My next recollection was awakening about 5:00 a.m. and hearing the gentle singing of birds just outside the window of our hotel room. Later, I got up and looked out the window to see the dawn of a clear, beautiful day. Our window overlooked the street that ran in front of the hotel. You could see the shops lining the street and the church where we would be having a practice later. We did receive our traditional (2-call) wake up call. I think that the first call is the equivalent of the snooze button on an alarm clock.

Phyllis and I had a lovely room. We were fortunate enough to have a sitting area (woo-hoo). The bathroom presented a challenge as the shower head was sticking out of the west wall but without a shower stall. Yes, there was a curtain and a drain in the floor. However, after flooding the bathroom with the first shower, we learned you had to turn the water on very slowly and without much force. Obviously, it pays to go through "International Bathrooms 101." What a learning curve!

Breakfast on the patio..

Breakfast was located on the second floor (or was it the first- I never could get it straight) in a bright sunny room that opened up onto a roof veranda (with greenery and red flowers). The red was so vibrant. (Phyllis, the perpetual green thumb and master gardener that she is, was itching to properly weed the plants but she refrained- she figured the hotel staff wouldn't appreciate it. Go figure). There was a gentle breeze wafting through the dining room. It was so cheerful and the Chorale members were having a relaxed and enjoyable continental breakfast.

The majority of the group then left for a day of sightseeing in Siena. Siena is a modern city at ease with its medieval past, culture, and ambience. According to Frommers (2005), "In Rome you see classicism and the baroque, and in Florence you see the Renaissance; but in the walled city of Siena, you're transported back to the Middle Ages. It is a showcase of Italian gothic."

While the majority of the group went to Siena, approximately twelve individuals stayed behind in Montecatini to relax, recuperate, shop, get a "Spa" treatment (Kent), reflect, or just have some time to one's self. Jan was so excited because she bought some beautiful Italian fabric to use for a quilt. We all met for lunch and walked to a nearby Trattoria. I think that 12 Americans descending on a poor hapless waiter with very limited English was daunting, however, I think our waiter did a very nice job. We ordered a variety of Panini and pasta dishes. Some of us even tried a frappe, the Italian version of a milkshake. However, it was like no milkshake we had experienced before. It was not creamy at all. Rather it was very frothy (like the foam on a cappuccino) which never dissolved. Very interesting! I rather enjoyed mine - at least I could swallow it.

A relaxing lunch.

After lunch, Ginny, Phyllis, and I decided to walk to the open- air market (3ish in the afternoon). After 15-20 minutes (Italian time), we finally found the market. Unfortunately, no one was there and all the Kiosks were closed except one. However, all was not lost because it was a beautiful walk. The streets are narrow and lined with homes and businesses that take pride in their appearance, beautiful landscaping, and flowers.

Montecatini-Terme is a quaint, peaceful Tuscan town. It is known for its spas, curative waters, and scenic locations. It is filled with boutiques, thermal centers, cafes, parks, churches, etc. The atmosphere is relaxed and truly enjoyable.

After walking, I had spent my energy, so it was back to bed until practice at 6:30. At that time, the Chorale members met in front of the church which was located across the street from the Hotel Bretagne. Philip lined us up on the steps according to our New Seating Chart (Imagine that!) and we practiced how we would get on and off whatever stage we would perform on. Clearly, our ability to accomplish this feat was questionable at best at S. Eustachio in Rome. After the mass was completed we gained entry into a beautiful-modern architecture church. I could not sing so I had the immense joy of sitting in the pews and listening to the group practice. It was a real treat to sit in the audience and hear the beautiful sounds and harmonies our group could and was making. The women on Ave Maria blew me away. The men weren't too shabby either. It was a real joy. Unfortunately, the practice time was limited so Julie was only able to start each song, so I didn't have the opportunity to hear an entire piece. The music was also well appreciated by the congregation that stayed to hear us sing.

Gathering the herd.

After practice, we walked over to the sister hotel of the Grand Bretagne for dinner. The vegetable soup was delicious. It was followed by roast fillet of pork with wild mushroom and truffle sauce and roasted potatoes. And yes, we finally got our Tiramisu, and it was worth the wait. After dinner, I met up with a group of people, including Julie, Allen, Teri, Sandy, Sandy and Steve (to name a few) who wanted to take a walk. We picked up Russ and Paul along the way. So we strolled along main street and peeked in the shop windows as we passed by. I am not a shoe fanatic but the shoes I saw were awesome. Julie and Sandy kept losing Allan and Steve, but they were never far away. We stopped for a gelato (say it isn't so) and to rest. It was a beautiful evening. After our walk, we met up with other Chorale members, who were sitting outside at the nearby Bar-Pasticceria. The conversation was fun and entertaining. It was all very relaxing.

I heard many people say that their favorite place in Italy was in Montecatini. It was such a picturesque town. It was the first time many of us had a chance to relax and enjoy a slower pace. We were able to stay three nights in the same hotel. We had time to wash our Chorale shirts and various sundry articles of clothing and have them dry in time to be repacked. Plus, we didn't have to repack each night. While it is hard to make comparisons, for many, Montecatini was our oasis in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the trip.

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touching the spirit... enriching us all