Returning to Siena

(This post is from the evening of September 16th)

I woke up relatively late this morning in Monteriggioni because Florian and I had decided to walk to Siena together and he wanted to sleep in a little because he considered the 20 km stage a “short” one.  I was less certain.  20 km was about the longest I had walked so far, and I knew that the second half of today’s stage would be largely uphill.  Still, my confidence in my walking ability was growing, and since I already had reserved a spot at a religious hostel, I didn’t think waiting too long to leave would cause too much of a problem. We left our house around 8 o’clock and walked to the gate opposite from the one we had entered the day before.  There was a truck in the piazza, delivering food and drinks to one of the restaurants, and shopkeepers were standing outside their doorways, sweeping and preparing for the day’s tourists.  It reminded me very much of San Gimignano in the morning—everyone is up early, getting ready for the visitors who will soon take over their town when the sun gets a bit higher.

We exited the gate, and were met by the old man, his wife, and his dog.  It seemed like they always went out in the morning to bid farewell to the pilgrims who had stayed with them the night before.  The man said something to Florian in what seemed like perfect German and then turned to me saying, “Good luck!” in heavily accented English.  “Thank you,” I replied with a smile.  He then switched to Italian and told me that I was the first American he had ever spoken to who knew any Italian.  He seemed very impressed—like most Italians are—about my hometown of Washington, DC, and asked that I say hello to President Obama when I returned.  I promised that the next time I saw Barack, I would do just that, and Florian and I set off on our way.

Today’s hike was pleasant compared to the exposed pathways on the way to Monteriggioni.  Again, the way followed tracks between fields and a few routes along more wooded trails.  Florian’s pace was quicker than what I was used to, and when the path narrowed to one lane, he took the lead.  It was a bit harder than I would have pushed myself, but it showed me that I was capable of going a bit more quickly than I had been thus far.  As I walked, I looked forward to when I could do more of the pilgrimage with a lighter pack—nearly everyone I’ve met has commented on how heavy mine is—and with a better knowledge of what to expect along the way.

About mid-morning, we took a break in a field before beginning a long section on a quiet country road.  We ate apples that Florian had brought with him and sat talking about various German and American customs while enjoying the pleasantly warm end-of-summer air.

The fact that the air was already warm around 10AM should have alerted me to the fact that the rest of the walk would be getting harder.  The final stages of the hike to Siena were on quiet country roads.  Although we didn’t have to contend with many cars, the way was uncovered and the sun beat down from above as the baked roadway cooked us from beneath.  I also had to deal with Florian’s fast walking speed and the many hills that lay between us and the medieval city.  By the time we reached sight of the town, I had had about enough, but I wasn’t going to embarrass myself by asking Florian to stop or slow down.  Slowly, I made my way up the final steep hill and began to recognize places on the side of the road.  We walked by a small tabaccheria/bar and I told Florian that I was going in to get a drink.  They had just what I needed—a nice, cold can of orange Fanta.  I bought the drink and after struggling with opening it for a few moments enjoyed its refreshing taste more than anything I had consumed over the last few days.  In Italy during the summer, things are seldom cold.  There is hardly any air conditioning to be found, they don’t use ice, and water is not kept in the refrigerator.  An American like me is used to having relief from these sorts of warm temperatures, and when it’s not as readily available as in the States, the heat begins to wear on you.  Italians have learned to deal with this by taking afternoon siestas.  Everything shuts down around 1 or 2, and doesn’t open up again until around 4 o’clock.  I’ve often wondered if the country would be more productive if it simply invested in a little air conditioning so that everyone could work through the afternoon.  That very idea goes against everything Italians stand for, though, so I don’t think it will happen anytime soon.

After my Fanta, the rest of the trip across town was downhill—both figuratively and literally.  As we kept walking, I knew more and more where I was headed.  Each place I recognized gave me strength and energy.  It was a bit like making a long drive home from vacation.  It seems to take forever until you get near home and find everything that is familiar and fond to you.  Once you reach that point, any journey is easy.

Finally we reached it—the Piazza del Campo, center of the city and home to the famous Palio horse race.  It was just as I remembered; tour groups led by umbrella or flag-toting guides searching for shade; small clusters of people sitting down on the sloped bricks; hot and thirsty tourists and natives alike drinking cool, refreshing water from the Fonte Gaia; and the whole scene dominated by the massive Palazzo Pubblico and Torre di Mangia on the flat, southern side of the fan-shaped space.  We were not interested in sightseeing, however—not yet.  We walked right through the Piazza and down Via Romana until we reached the turn-off point for where I thought the Accoglienza di Santa Luisa would be.  Sure enough, I had the right spot, and we rang the doorbell.

Soon afterwards, we heard shouting within.  I couldn’t make out what was being said, and Florian seemed a bit concerned.  A few moments later, the door was opened by a wiry old woman in a blue dress wearing a matching, blue veil.  She invited us in and asked if we had called to reserve a spot.  I said that I had and she gave me a book where my name was supposed to have been written down.  I took a look at the list and didn’t see my name among the book’s entries.  I looked through once more and saw one “name” that read “TERLUING.”  This was closest to my actual name, so I said that that must be me.  I wrote my proper name down in the book and the woman asked Florian to do the same, even though he hadn’t called before to reserve a space.  She asked us how many nights we wanted to stay and I inquired about the possibility of staying two nights.  She said she didn’t think that was possible, but would check later.  As she led us upstairs, she asked if we wanted to shower first or eat before washing up.  Eat!  Neither of us had expected to be fed, particularly lunch.  I said we’d prefer to clean up first and she replied, saying that we must hurry because the food was ready.  Since everything was already prepared, we decided to skip the showers for now and go downstairs for lunch.

We entered a medium-sized cafeteria and were greeted by a loud shriek.  “AAAAAHHHH!”  Looking up, we both saw what were now two very familiar faces, in the pair of women from San Gimignano and Monteriggioni.  We were surprised to run into these two again, even though we knew they were going to Siena.  The night before, they had expressed their desire to leave very early (6 AM) from Monteriggioni, because they knew they would travel slow with their wounded feet and would make better ground in the cool morning weather.  Neither Florian nor I had heard them depart in the morning, and we weren’t sure that they had kept to their plan.  But here they were, sure enough, eating lunch with some of the sisters.

Florian and I were instructed to go into the kitchen and fix plates for ourselves—“Self-Service,” said the nun.  Inside we found cold bowtie—farfalle for Italian speakers—pasta with vegetables and hotdog bits mixed in.  This was just the sort of thing I had so often at my host family’s house in Siena the summer before, and it is perfect for the hot weather of this region.  I packed my plate full of the stuff and went to join the others at the table.  To drink, we had a wide variety of options including cold water, aranciata juice—similar to Fanta—and there was even red wine and spumante—sparkling white wine—set out for us.  I downed as many tiny plastic cups of the water and aranciata as I needed to satisfy my thirst, while the sister who let us in poured herself some spumante.

We were all talking with each other—playing the same linguistic games as we had the night before—when another ring came at the door and one of the sisters ran to get it.  We heard a man’s voice, trying to communicate with the nun, but she couldn’t understand him at all.  The voice then raised itself even louder and said something in German that I interpreted as meaning that he was a pilgrim coming from Rome.  At this point, Florian and I looked at each other.  Near the religious hostel we were now eating in, we had passed an old man on the road, wearing hiking boots, carrying a heavy bag, and sweating profusely.  He seemed like a hiker, totally over-prepared for his journey in terms of gear—his pack looked brand-new, he carried a proper canteen, wore a wide-brimmed hat, and had a flannel-colored mat strapped to his bag—but completely unready physically—sweat dripped off his nose, and each step he took brought a new grimace to his face.  After passing, Florian turned to me and said, “I think he was German.”  “I sort of thought so, too,” I replied, smiling.  “Oh, is that what you think of us then?” asked my Teutonic friend.  We both were pretty certain that the man in the hallway was this same one we had passed a few minutes before.  Sure enough, in came the old man, moving like a bull in a china shop between the cafeteria chairs.  He went immediately to the kitchen to get food, and came back, observing us all as if we couldn’t speak his language sitting at the far end of the table.  One of the sisters came over to try and ask him something, but he wouldn’t listen and immediately gave up on trying to communicate with her.  Florian called out a greeting to him in German, hoping to add him to our circle of translations so that he could at least know what was going on.  The man didn’t respond in any way to what Florian said, however, and started in on his big pile of food.

Soon afterwards, another sister approached, trying to talk to the man.  As she was talking to him, in Italian, he turned to the rest of us sitting there and said, “Does anyone else here speak English?”  What he said was so broken up and in an accent unfamiliar to me, so I still thought he was from some non-English speaking country when I answered, “Yes, I do.”  “Could you please let me know what’s going on?” asked the man.  This time, I got it.  His accent was unmistakably South African.  Why he seemed to pause in the middle of his sentences like he was speaking a strange language escaped me.  Eventually, I was able to communicate what he wanted to the nuns—to stay a night at the accoglienza—and translate their response to his request—‘Yes.’

After lunch, we went upstairs to our room to relax.  Florian and I had been put into a room of four bunk beds and were soon joined by the old man from downstairs.  Florian lay on his bed while I sat in a chair, taking off my boots, and the old man begin to talk to me about the most random of topics—Jupiter and its four moons.  He told me that if I woke up early enough, before sunrise, but after the stars had left the sky, I could see Jupiter along the ecliptic—the path the sun travels on as the Earth rotates beneath.  Jupiter has four moons, the man explained, which were discovered by Galileo 400 years ago.  The man had gone to Florence to pay homage to Galileo a few days earlier.  This was interesting and all, but I had no idea why I was receiving this lecture on astronomy.  Florian sensed what I could not, and closed his eyes, pretending to sleep, as the man began a discourse ranging every conceivable topic, from Jupiter, to the Euro, to his brother’s murder in South Africa, to why America had nothing to worry about from China.  This man seemed to know to think he knew about everything under (and above) the sun.  I really didn’t understand why I had become subject to this treatment until he revealed that he had been on 11 pilgrimages before this one.  Eleven times out on the road like this, never staying in the same place and having no one to talk to is bound to make you a little crazy, and I think this man had succumbed to the effects of this sort of solitary existence.

Florian eventually got up to shower, and when he returned, I took the opportunity to make my exit to do the same.  When I got back, the man was just leaving to “pay homage” to St. Catherine of Siena—“You have to visit her head in Siena and her body in Rome!”  I took out my laptop to write a few things down and he turned around, saw what I was doing and asked if I was “writing down reminisces, too.”  Apparently he had witnessed Florian do the same thing in his little diary and gave me a similar brusque response—“You’ll never look at it again; it’s a waste of time.”  He left in this bad mood, leaving the two of us sort of stunned.

As we sat there wondering about what had just happened, someone else came into the room led by a nun.  He was another young pilgrim, bearded and wearing a black tank-top.  His bag was very small and he was carrying a long stick with him.  He came in and sat down and asked if either of us spoke German.  Florian replied, ja, and I, no, so English became our common tongue.  This new pilgrim’s name was Lorenz, and he had taken a different path from us.  He said that he had been walking on the Way of Assisi with a friend and decided to come to Siena to end his pilgrimage.  He was no stranger to the path, as he had done the Via Francigena before and was already familiar with the places along the way to Rome.  The three of us were talking for a while, when yet another pilgrim came into the room, led by a nun.  This one was similarly equipped to Lorenz, although he didn’t come armed with a knowledge of English.  He was Italian, so I tried to chat with him a little, but he seemed more interested in being left alone.  With our room getting crowded and our bodies now well-rested, Florian and I decided to go out and have a look around.  Lorenz joined us.

The three of us were immediately friendly.  I felt bad being the third wheel to their German kinship, making them speak another language, but they didn’t seem to mind.  We wandered up through town to the Duomo and stood outside, admiring the building’s intricate beauty and watching the tour groups go by.  It’s funny, but when you’re a pilgrim, even out sightseeing as we were, you don’t feel like a tourist.  Lorenz told us about how he found tour groups funny, and would actually spend time watching them observe the monuments and sights.  Each of us was staying another day in Siena, so we felt no need to rush and see everything this afternoon.  After spending some time in front of the Duomo, we walked down to the Piazza del Campo, buying gelato along the way.  We sat down in the square, enjoying the beautiful weather and atmosphere.  It was incredibly relaxing, and made me reminiscent for the time I had spent in studying in Siena.  Sitting in the Piazza in the cool of the afternoon or evening was a favorite activity for all the students, and I smiled, remembering the fun we had in that space.  Today, I was with two new friends who I hardly knew, but it seemed just as comfortable and relaxed.  We were willing to sit there with long periods of silence just soaking in whatever surrounded us.  Doing a pilgrimage teaches you that it’s ok to sit for a while, enjoying a bit of quiet.  The journey and place speak for itself, and sometimes you just have to listen or else you’ll miss what it’s truly trying to say.


~ by pminnig on September 24, 2011.

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