Siena is a cacophony,
which can be nice for a day or two, but it could really get on your nerves in
the long term. Every morning, what can only be described as a cacophony of
bells from several different churches start ringing at 7 am, and again at 8 am,
continuing each time for about a minute. In the evening, they ring around 6 pm
and 7 pm. For a small city which had 50,000 inhabitants at its peak in the
1300s, this city has a lot of churches. Outside our window, there are church
bells on top of a parish that is literally next door. If you lean outside far
enough, you can see San Domenico di Caterina, a large, elegant brick building
to our right which is very typically Romanesque and does not have a lot of
large windows, and then dominating our view from the apartment is the black and
white striped masterpiece that is Il Duomo, Siena Cathedral.
To give a little
background (though we’ll really dig into the history soon), Siena is about an
hour and a half by train south of Florence in Tuscany. It used to be its own
republic and a mighty city-state that once defeated Florence in war, but
subsequently, became much more impoverished. As a result, Siena never had the
funds to pull down their medieval buildings, and to this day, most of the city
looks very similar to when it was built, sometime probably between 1100 and
1555 (the time of the Republic).
The first afternoon
we arrived, we trekked nearly half an hour from the train station into the
city, climbing the hillside to the city through a series of escalators and
ramps, and then into the guts of a small medieval city with very narrow
passageways that are lucky enough to fit one car and steep enough to merit
stairs in a few places instead of smooth or scored stone pavement. Our Airbnb
has an excellent view of Il Duomo as well as the surrounding hillside, and off
in the distance, blue-purple hills punctured by the dark green poplars that are
the hallmark of the Italian countryside. Outside our window are a few lovely
restaurants who are capitalizing on the great view, and entertain folks deep
into the night. Every day, there are also sparrows. They have colonized this
city, perching in all sorts of small holes built into these buildings where
they raise their young. They swoop about all day, but especially plentifully
during dusk, scooping up insects and bugs. Perhaps that’s why we’ve had such a
mosquito-free time, in comparison to our time in Venice!
Despite being just over two hours away by plane, Steve and I had never been to Macau, a former Portuguese colony which is also a hop and skip away from Hong Kong. We decided on a whim to visit this week, and it was a fabulous decision. Macau is a strange little contradiction – a Chinese city with a strong Portuguese presence and heritage, an overseas European settlement now turned Special Administrative Region (SAR) but also a part of China at the same time. We spent two days walking through very twisty streets and ate a lot of sticky sweets and delicious food, and enjoyed seeing some awesome sights.
We flew into Macau on Tuesday in the middle of the day, and it was a bit rough of a start. First, we had no Internet access initially, because the 2G internet afforded by our T-Mobile cards overseas in almost every other country we’ve been to didn’t seem to be working. The driver of the 26 bus that Google had told us to take into the city gruffly informed us we should take the MT4 instead, and I was trying frantically to figure out if we had enough coins in HKD to get on the bus. After purchasing a SIM card out of a vending machine and identifying the MT4, we finally were on our way.
Macau is best known for its gambling, huge lavish and opulent buildings like the Venetian, Sands, and the Wynn. The golden flower shape of the Grand Lisboa skyscraper loomed over the city peninsula and was visible everywhere we went. Since neither of us were much interested in exploring the gambling aspect, though, we decided to make our focus the food and European legacy of Macau. After dropping things off at our hotel the Ole Tai Sam Un, we set off by foot for St. Paul’s Ruins. It’s the second best known thing in Macau, a former church that had been rebuilt and burnt down several times, with the 1843 conflagration leaving just its front façade intact. It sits above a wide flight of stairs and a small square, and today figures into the selfies of pretty much every tourist who visits Macau. The façade is beautiful, and about two feet thick, retaining weathered green bronze statues of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. We roamed around, and then walked up the hill beside it to the Fortaleza Monte, a small fort which had some beautiful views of the city and was also home to the Museum of Macau. We walked through the small museum, learning about different architectural styles and the history of the numerous forts that had been there before. Continue reading Two days in Macau.→
The last few days of our world trip were a whirlwind in London, the capital of the United Kingdom. On second thought, there’s a good chance it was always going to be a combination of desperate last-minute sightseeing and window-shopping while wondering if we could fit more presents into our luggage for family and friends. But London, like Paris, has no end of historical jewels (figurative and literal) to dazzle the common visitor, and I had never been there before! The only saving grace is that there were no must-try restaurants, because no one is going to pretend English cuisine is the height of gastronomy.
We took the National Express bus down from Cambridge, and as soon as we got into Greater London, it became obvious that the last 1/4th of the trip would take as much time as the first 3/4ths did. We managed to badger the driver into dropping us off at an earlier stop than Victoria Coach Station, and took the Tube up to Camden Town, where we were staying. After a nap and shower, we took ourselves out to visit Hyde Park and the Serpentine (a long pond). It was green and pleasant, with rowboats and some stately looking swans. And giant too — it easily took a good 45 minutes to walk diagonally from one corner to another. At one corner, opposite Royal Albert Hall, we found a monument also dedicated to Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s consort, which looked like the British take on a Thai Buddhist temple. In other words, gold, baroque, and unappealing. After some quick dinner, we called it an early night, in preparation for two mad days of sight-seeing in London. Continue reading London, Part I: Bridges across the Thames.→
Last week, we welcomed our first visitors to Lyon. My friend Kat, who graduated a few years after me from our alma mater, has been doing her masters in journalism in Paris. Out of the (somewhat) blue, she messaged me to say that her mother was visiting her, and wanted to see another city in France. Was that couch of ours still available? Of course it was! We had a great two days hanging out with Kat and her mother Michelle and took the chance to see one of the parts of Lyon that we hadn’t yet visited.
Here’s Lyonnais Geography and History 101: the city of Lyon is divided by two rivers, which flow from the north and merge together in the south. On the east is the Rhône River, and we live on its east bank, right next to Parc de la Tête d’Or. In the middle of the two rivers is the hill of Croix-Rousse and Presqu’île. To the west runs the Saône, and on its west bank that (in other words, clear on the other side of the city from us) is Vieux-Lyon and the hill of Fourvière. (If you are super confused about this geography, check out this map of Lyon.) The two hills of Fourvière and Croix-Rousse are historically (and respectively) contrasted as the hill that prays and the hill that works, because Fourvière is home to the Basilica of Fourvière, and Croix-Rousse was home to the silk workers who made this city an industrial center of their trade in the 19th century. Fourvière is coincidentally also where the oldest part of Lyon can be found, the remains of the town of Lugdunum, capital of the Roman province of Gaul (modern-day France). And if you ever took more than three years of Latin, you will know that Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.