“We’re only in Italy for what, like two months? Might as well be spontaneous” I hear myself say. “But we said we’d only travel on the weekends and besides, I have a composition due tomorrow”… “Lisa, didn’t you anticipate spontaneity at some point?”
Planning for spontaneity. In any other circumstance that is an oxymoron, however, not on the terrain where spontaneity reigns supreme (and I suppose, where the Siena train station is fittingly located directly across from the university). One of those flash revelations of travel is the realization that worlds you’d love vibrantly exist outside your unawareness of them. The vitality of many lives and sites you hitherto knew nothing about are imbued with life upon impulsively yet, almost instinctively uttering, “Andiamo”.
It was this monotonous spontaneity, indispensable to the traveler that led me to rediscover an expired set of train tickets to Monteriggioni; a small commune located twenty minutes outside of Siena. How true it has held that perhaps the most striking of memories are made in the most unlikely of places.
In brief, Monteriggioni is no Rome, Venice, or Naples; located in the province of Siena nearby the Chianti region, this quintessential walled medieval Tuscan village which once served as a Senese fortified outpost, is regarded for its nearly intact masonry ten-meter high walls and fourteen towers that encircle the village and have withstood the formerly recurrent and formidable Florentine attacks during the height of the Renaissance. The town, once considered to be impregnable from attack because of the presence of its towers, boasts a superbly archetypal Tuscan panorama as it is nestled on a hill high enough to regard the sweeping vineyards below but low enough that one may recognize the utter vastness of the undulating landscape that encloses the commune in a lush greenery.
Since Monteriggioni was a mere 20-minute ride away, the regional train we were to take did not boast the most agreeable of conditions, and by an unfavorable setting I do mean to say that there was zero air circulation within its ill-equipped cabins. It was not the heat that was bothersome for any temperature below 35 C on an unclouded day in early July would be inexplicable but rather, it was the mugginess in the air that was off-putting. One quick motion to unlatch the windows beside our quad and the sudden pull forward that often signifies the train has begun to move, resolved the issue of the heat.
Upon arrival to the dilapidated-looking train station (better described as a hovel), Lisa, Fred, Frances and I faced a modern street lined with an assortment of small shops that did not in the slightest bit resemble the medieval fortress town we had all studied in our textbooks. To our left were three construction workers: “Scusate puoi aiutarci? Dobbiamo andare a Monteriggioni ma non sappiamo come arrivarci da questo punto.” Their response was simple: one could walk 45 minutes until they reach the top of the hill that now came into view as they pointed towards the mountain that was to the left of our sightlines. All four of us were synchronized in thought: Walk 45 minutes in this heat? That’s absurd. We gave a hasty, “Grazie Signori” and took leave to the nearest Tabaccheria. The recommendation there was just as frank as the previous: we could either trek 45 minutes up the mountain and revel in the scenery of the “Bel Paese” while doing so, or we could call the local taxi and have him drive us to the gates and arrive in under 15 minutes. Without hesitation, we agreed upon the latter option and within minutes we were in “Roberto Taxi” and on our way to the decaying yet imperishable Porta Franca arches.
Monteriggioni is a town that one dedicates no more than a single afternoon to touring. Even the narrowest crevices and remotest of churches, fountains, and shops within this commune can be observed within the span of four hours. As we entered through the gates, we were immediately embraced, coddled, and lost in the soft, filtered light and gentle curves of the path that immediately led to Piazza Roma, the center of the town. Standing map-less in the epicenter of this cobblestone-covered square, we were faced with four options that lay at each corner of the piazza. Given that the economy of the town is premised on agriculture and wine, it was unsurprising to discover that to our left lay a wine cellar, behind an organic goods shop, directly in front a gelateria, and dominating the piazza was a church that lay to our right. We endeavored to visit each site and walk the perimeter of the fortifying walls within four hours, as the trains back to Siena were quite infrequent putting us on somewhat of a schedule.
After sampling the most authentic wines of the neighboring Chianti region and observing the late Romanesque church of Santa Maria Assunta, consecrated in the 1200s and once the site where the peace treaty between Siena, Florence, and Poggibonsi was signed and enacted in 1235, we were positively famished. We instantly settled for Ristorante Il Pozzo, a restaurant frequented by the locals and situated in the centro storico of Monteriggioni.
Before entering the restaurant that exuded the rustic charm and quaintness typical of rural Tuscan eateries, I could not help but pay heed to the exterior walls erected with solid masonry stones and adorned with punctuated windows and green shutters. From the clay-tiled roof at the front, a series of intertwined grape vines cascaded unto the patio-lined umbrellas below. The warm earth tone quality delivered through the use of natural wood timbers, stoned flooring, and stucco painted walls greeted us as we walked through the front archways of the restaurant. We dined on the veranda, an area that had an outdoor appeal not unlike a finished greenhouse space that was separated from the main dining area through a series of wooden windows and glazed panels. As we ate, we were enveloped by a giardino bursting with an array of colourful ivies, shrubberies and grape vines that ran the circumference of the veranda.
Beguiled by the elegance of the pastoral beauty that encircled us, we became ignorant to the weather conditions looming above. By the time we had paid the check and stepped outside, prepared to climb the heights of the fortress walls, thunder began to strike. One note on the weather in Tuscany – when it rains, it pours. The weather itself is as erratic as the Tuscan landscape of endless undulating hills: temperatures will peak, drop, and peak again all within the span of a single hour and provide no forewarning to inhabitants. As it began to pour, we followed the locals’ lead and took shelter under a patio umbrella of another gelateria. “Quick get out Roberto Taxi’s number, I’m not sure when this rain will let up.” Impulsively resolving to end our trip and head back to the train station, to catch the last train scheduled for that afternoon (as the next did not leave until 8 PM), we dialed “Roberto Taxi’s” number and (not) to our surprise, the phone line went dead. I suppose that’s to be expected when you name the taxi company after yourself and operate out of your own Fiat. Frustrated and now constrained by time (as the train to Siena was to leave in an hour’s time), we temporarily resolved to hike down the hill and prayed to the weather gods to have mercy on us or at least let us discover a driver along the roadway willing enough to bring us to the train station. We had one hour and we had been told that it takes one at least 45 minutes to walk to the station, meaning if we couldn’t find a ride, we’d just make it. What resulted from this trek down is further proof that spontaneity is more rewarding than a meticulously planned life.
We never did get a hold of Roberto Taxi (despite the 29 outbound calls made), nor did the weather feel merciful enough that day to relent, nor did the drivers commiserate with us as we walked along the edge of a strada towards the hovel of a train station that now seemed like a luxurious retreat. Instead (after our resignation to the circumstances), we too resolved to take cue from the weather and be as spontaneous as spontaneous could be as we frolicked about in gated vineyards, dashed in and around fruit trees, and starred in our own low-budget (as in shot on an iPhone) short film, “Pursued by a Wild Boar”.
We did make it to that train station and in time, might I add. Despite the drenched seats and the possibility of pneumonia, all was right again. The Monteriggioni experience catalyzed a slew of after-class day excursions that were to come and evidenced that one does not need to travel to Venice or Naples to create the soundest of memories that vibrantly reverberate throughout the brain years later; simple spontaneity and an open mind will do.
Andiamo = Let’s go
Scusate puoi aiutarci? Dobbiamo andare a Monteriggioni ma non sappiamo come arrivarci da questo punto = Excuse me, could you help us? We have to get to Monteriggioni but we’re unsure of how to get there from this point.
Tabaccheria = Tobacco shop/Convenience Store
Il Bel Paese = The Beautiful Country
Centro Storico = City center/Downtown
Giardino = Garden
Strada = street