Dec 11, 2014

Sayōnara, Siena!

‎It was with some reluctance that I shouldered my pack this morning after breakfast, partly because I'd have loved to see more of Siena, and partly because my last post took a few hours to compose. It was a late night, and an early morning. Still, it was a bright cold morning, with nothing but sunshine in the forecast. I knew that once my feet found their rhythm, I'd be happy to be moving on, and so it was.

I walked to the Porta Romana (the Roman Gate) and paused there to admire the fortifications. As I headed down the long steep pedestrian walkway leading away from the gate, another person fell into step beside me and struck up a conversation. Marco lives in a town (whose name now escapes me) about 16 kms from Siena. Every day, he takes the train in to the city and then walks 6 kms to his office. He could take the bus, but he enjoys the walk through the countryside.

At one point in our rambling conversation (in English - he's been learning the language and is eager to practice), he asked me how I'd gotten from San Miniato to San Gimignano.‎ When I told him I'd followed the trail, he observed that it must have been a very tough walk because of the clay. That it was, but I was surprised that he'd have such detailed knowledge of the trail, especially when he told me that he hadn't walked it. (It's something he'd like to do after he retires in a few more years.)

He cleared up the mystery a few minutes later. I'd asked him what he does for work, and he told me he's a chemist for the geological department of the Italian Environmental Protection Agency. His position requires a broad interdisciplinary knowledge, and because one of their concerns is water table pollution and runoff patterns, he knew exactly where the nasty miry clay was located. (My words, not his.)

It was a very pleasant and informative walk, and I was a little disappointed when, after an hour, he indicated that he was turning off the road and heading down a lane. In that short time, he'd taught me the Italian word for "frost" (it dropped below freezing last night, so once we got out of the city there was frost on car windows and the grass) and answered a question that I'd been wondering about for years.

While talking about cypresses, he off-handedly referred to them as ‎trees with symmetry. At least, that's what I thought he said, until he went on to say that their roots don't spread outwards, they go straight down, which means they don't disturb the graves. Ah-ha! Cemetery, not symmetry!

While I was galivanting about the middle east almost a decade ago, I'd noticed that cemeteries were quite often ringed with cypresses. The same holds true (in my limited experience) in Greece, Spain, and Italy. Since noticing this, I'd often wondered if there was some cultural significance or connection between cypresses ‎and death. Maybe there is, but the reason cypresses are planted is because of the shape of their roots. They're very good for withstanding erosion, and their root growth is highly predictable. 

Most of my day was spent on back country gravel (or dirt) roads, climbing and descending hills. The views were incredible, and by noon I'd taken off my outer layer and rolled up my sleeves. I found the sunlight rather confusing‎, in an odd way. Growing up in southern Ontario, I've never experienced the vastly shortened daylight hours of more northern regions, but I expect December to be mostly overcast and dark, yet here I was, in weather that was more like mid-September in Toronto. That wasn't the confusing bit.

What was confusing is that the combination of temperature and sunshine and even the smells of fallen leaves and the crisp edge to the air were all cues that I associate with the autumnal equinox, yet this close to the solstice, the shadows remained long throughout the day. It was really bizarre.

And on that note: to my friends reading this in Ontario and Quebec right now, please drive carefully if you must go out! Better yet, phone your boss and say you're taking the day off and then go build Calvin and Hobbes style snowmen!

It looks like I may be arriving in Rome on either Dec 17 or 18, depending on whether I want to arrive after dark (the 17th) or at noon (the 18th). Since I'm okay with long walking days‎, I think I may opt for the former. In order to do that, I need to get to bed earlier than I have been. Bon nuit!

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