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Siena-Assisi, Italia 8 September 2011

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Backroads from Siena to Assisi

We reluctantly bid a last sweet goodbye to Siena, packed our bags into a taxi, and were delivered to our rental car. Not without a certain amount of confusion, we headed off across the Crete toward Pienza, the town Piu II built, for a look at the first-ever effort at urban renewal. I expected to make it there for lunch, and despite the relatively short distances involved -- Google Maps said the whole distance was just about the same as the distance from Caspar to San Francisco -- we only made it as far as Asciano, a small farming town in a rich green valley in an otherwise grey-white landscape.

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<p>The Three Graces take their last fond look at the Campo</p>

The Three Graces take their last fond look at the Campo

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Asciano is barely on the map, and yet it offered up an amazing lunch. The food here is exceptional: fresh, innovative yet predictable, capable of satisfying our momentary whims. The special of the day was a Caprese of that day's Buffala Mozzarella and exceptional tomatoes. It should be noted that the food is fairly priced, and since we know that the produce is inexpensive, clearly the value is in the preparation.

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The Crete is miles and miles -- no, kilometers and kilometers -- of gently rolling farm land, much of it now resting from its winter and springtime exertions. In many places the soil is the color of concrete, and looks like nothing would grow. Apparently, the agricultural approach is the same everywhere, and the soil is deeply tilled once a year.

The habitation pattern is the same all over Tuscany: the tops of hills, from whence the topsoil has been washed away for millennia, are reserved for towns and family compounds, often several compact stone buildings clusted around a few precious, ancient trees. The slopes and especially the bottomlands are reserved for intensive farming. This pattern extends even up the valleys that penetrate nearly to the heart of Siena. 

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Aeneas Piccolomini was born here, and when he acquired power, he came home and rebuilt the town. It is still a small town gracefully caught in the 1460s,  built for people to live well in, with polished buildings and narrow streets meant for wandering and bidding each other Buona sera.

After visiting the church and admiring the art, we sat in the little park and ate granitas.

Then back in the car, and with expert wheelwoman Damiana at the helm, embarked on the final push to Assisi.

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As we travel through the south of Tuscany and into Umbria, the pattern of hilltop homesteads and slope farming continues ... until we encounter the industrial crowding of modern Italia's Perugia region, where the valley is filled up with factories, our first autostrade, whizzing bumper to bumper traffic, confusing signs. Often, where the autostrade encounters a hill, it plunges right through it, sparing the ancient neighborhood above.

Finally, nearing the limit of our ability to stay calm, Assisi, a pink-grey city on the hill, appears, and we can sense the end of today's brutal road. After a few interesting detours and one dead end, we finally squeeze the car into Hotel Ideale's tight parking lot, and have time to restore ourselves ...

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...before the sunset works its magic.

After Siena, and our noisy location, the peacefulness of this little town after most of the day-trippers have left is a gift. We cool down, shower, and then head out down the steep streets in search of dinner. We finally choose a strange little place with a hand-written menu, and have a strange little (but enjoyable and tasty) dinner, complete with a birre artigianale named Radica made from the roots of several unlikely plants. Strange but delicious, in keeping with the dinner.


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A group of postulants and sisters are singing outside the Duomo. We stop to enjoy their music and the moon rising over the romanesque roof, but then something draws me inside, where there is a reward: the choir is practicing with the organ, and the hard old church interior is filled with the stirring sound of holy music on a hold place. Many others, townies as well as overnighting tourists, are similarly captivated: another little gift from San Francesco. 

Afterwards, the obligatory stop for our first Italian tira misu and, for me, a grappa. (The girls, of course, sample another amaro.)

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