The Sights of Siena

IMG_5273After hiking nearly 100 KM on the Via Francigena, and when my toes turned to fall colours, I stayed in Siena while Kees continued hiking.

The historic center of Siena, or centro storico as it is called in Italian, is very walkable. I love roaming the narrow streets with its thick stone walls of houses that are hundreds of years old. Much of the ancient city wall remains in tact, with gateways into the city, like the glorious Porto Romano. Although in a few places the city fathers have, in their wisdom, decided to destroy the wall to make room for modern day traffic.

Busses run frequently and pretty much on schedule to and from the old center. For 1.50 you can travel quite far. At the Piazza Indipendenza you can simply phone a taxi and it shows up in minutes to take you to your destination. We bought sim cards from a company called Wind, to use our phones in Italy. Reasonable rates, unlimited texting and we can  even use it throughout Europe. It’s been a lifesaver to use the data with maps as we roam the city or countryside without wifi access. What did we do before cell phones and Ipads? Get lost, I guess…

IMG_5193Of course, Siena is famous for its Il Campo piazza. Its unique oval shape slopes down to the Palazza Pubblico. Its Torre del Mangia can be seen from across the countryside. I enjoyed walking around and across Il Campo, despite the many tourist contortionists trying to take selfies. Why would you want yourself obstructing the glorious medieval buildings in your photos? 

IMG_5192The most fascinating story about Il Campo is that this is the site of a bizarre, annual horse race. It’s a historic event (of course) in which all neighborhoods of the city wholeheartedly participate. All year, events lead up to this 90 second race. Watch the Rick Steeves’ video below for a good synopsis. When you walk around the empty square, it’s hard to imagine 50,000 people cramped into the center while horses race around the outside.

When I got hungry, I simply picked one of the many wrought iron tables and chairs outside shops. I had pasta quattro formaggi, 4 cheese pasta, for 4.50 euros.

My favourite discovery in Siena was the Fortezza Medicea, an ancient fortress now a jazz school and event center. Perched on top of the ancient wall was an entire elementary school. No road, just a school with a fenced play yard. The walls of the fortress were a great (free) place to stroll and offered a tremendous view of the old city, the towers and, of course, Il Duomo. IMG_5189

The Piazza Duomo is perhaps the most recognized landmark of the city. Every bit as glorious as the cathedral in Florence, this one is perhaps even more decorative. In fact, when I went inside I thought “this is not a church, it’s a piece of jewelry.” Seldom have I seen such an ornate building. Every wall, every corner, every pillar, every piece inside it, is a work of art. Donatell, Leonardo, Bernini – they all worked here and their masterpieces still show off their talents.

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Sculptures, wood carvings, marble statues, paintings, wall hangings…. It is overwhelming. For a mere 8 euros you can wander on your own and gaze at all the medieval fanciness around you, as long as you like. IMG_5231

When you are outside, you notice a gigantic rough brick wall. Just a wall by itself. It impressive to know that the cathedral was supposed to be that much bigger. But then the plague hit the city and the expansion never happened. 

Inside the cathedral, the floors are perhaps the most mind blowing feature. I took photos but the best ones are on the Opera Duomo website where you have a view from the top. The floors should really be hanging on the walls – they are intricate, inlaid marble mosaics depicting biblical scenes. IMG_5238

Suddenly, to the left, is a small room. It is the Piccolomini Library (I love that name because ‘picollo’ means ‘little’ in Italian so ‘piccolomini’ must be really small! It was a family name). Its walls intricately painted, this has been called the world’s most beautiful library. It was built, some 500 years ago, for a pope and to house his collection of manuscripts. Most of the works on display are music scores, painted in gild and curls.IMG_5255

Outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, you can have an espresso and wander down to the Piazza Mercado, once a lovely, covered market place but now simply a parking lot. But one wall has a brilliant cascade of purple bougainvillea, worth the walk there.

Before I sauntered back down the 2 KM to my AirBnB cottage, I bought furlined socks. It’s nippy in Siena in October!

Siena: http://www.terresiena.it/en/info/tourist-information-offices

Wind SIM card: https://www.wind.it/privati/

Horse Race: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_clMjoa9d1s

Il Duomo: https://www.discovertuscany.com/siena/what-to-do/porta-del-cielo-tour.html

Il Duomo: https://operaduomo.siena.it/en/

Are there Taxis in the Jungle?

IMG_081633º and we are hiking… It’s all Kees’ fault. He’s the one who loves to hike. When locals here look at us in astonishment and ask “why??” I shrug, point at my husband and say “ask him”. I know, I know. He loves the physical exercise. He loves the solitude of walking through the country side. He loves the challenge of long distance hikes with a big pack, walking day after day.

After trudging along for several long distance hikes in Holland, for a long hot one in Australia, for part of the Camino de Santiago, I decided that – much as I love him – I like walking but not long distance hiking.

And so we look for compromises. Active holidays with lots of walking but the comfort of a good room and no lugging of luggage day after day. Is a 15 day trek in Cambodia a compromise? I think so, although it is different from what we expected.

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Our wonderful guide Po

We found a website and liked what we saw. We received an itinerary and Cambodia Cycling & Trekking was very willing to tweak and answer questions. Each day we would walk – the itinerary told us things like “Day 3: Siem Reap to Kratie. Breakfast at the hotel, visit Kompong Kdei Bridge, transfer to Santuk Mountain, climb to hilltop pagoda, transfer to Kratie.”

What we didn’t realize, is that the ‘transfers’ that day amounted to driving 400 KM. Each day listed the walking distance, ranging from 3 to 17 KM. Three days seemed to be awfully short hikes, and 17 was a bit daunting but oh well.

Once here, we realize that the oppressive heat plays havoc with your body. I found that 4 to 5 KM was fine, after that things became a struggle especially when the ‘hilltop pagoda’ was on top of 800 steep, uneven steps in the blazing sun.

IMG_0907We had also not realized that the same guide and driver, two wonderful young, energetic men, would stay with us the entire time. It was wonderful to have our luggage transported and near us at all times. From the correspondence, we had understood that it would just be the two of us, with a different guide in different regions. It was great to get to know each other and to always have a local to explain things or to ask detailed questions.

The listed distances both in the car and on foot, were not very accurate. We soon discovered we had to be very flexible and keep asking for details. ‘500 metre’ often was one KM. A ‘half hour’ often was double.

IMG_1033On day 3 or so I got a bad case of food poisoning by eating at a remote restaurant. This completely zapped me of any energy. I skipped a day of hiking and enjoyed reading and writing in the air conditioned van. The next day we would walk to an indigenous village. Not wanting to miss this, I decided to walk but told our guide that 4 KM was too much for me. He agreed to drive further along and cut the hike in half. Unfortunately the road was blocked half way so we had no choice but to start walking. A local park ranger joined us, with a machete. Soon we left the road and plunged into the jungle, where he cut a trail for us. We trudged up and down hill, over logs, among brambles and thorns. It was all very gorgeous and interesting, but I should have never attempted this in my condition. I had not eaten in three days, my insides were cramping and – after a while – I thought I’d die. When we came to a small creek, I couldn’t scoop enough cold water on my head. But we had to keep going. I lost all sense of distance and time. But did hike for hours. ‘Can you call a taxi from inside the jungle?’ I kept wondering. I voiced that wish once I got really desperate. “A motorbike!” I said. Everyone here rides motorbikes everywhere and they all have cell phones. “If you know where we are, can’t you ask the driver to send a motorbike?” At first they laughed but soon they realized I was serious. I had started thinking, I’d pay 5 dollars for a ride out. Soon I was thinking 20. Then 100! Anything.

IMG_1225Two motorbikes actually did appear out of nowhere, in that dense jungle, zigzagging and jumping over boulders, coming down a deep dried creekbed. Alas, one was loaded with wood. The next one had no seat and was also fully loaded with cassava. Plus they were going the wrong way. I crawled on, sweat dripping down my face and splashing on the ground. My hands and knees were shaking. It was 34º.

About 10 minutes before we’d reach the road, we found a man with a motorbike who agreed to rescue me for 10,000 riel – about 2 dollars. He was a knight in shining armour on a white steed. Too bad he hadn’t come along earlier. But he took me to our van where I crawled inside and collapsed.

IMG_1140My favourite walk, perhaps, was a simple stroll along a dirt road through a village. On a Sunday afternoon when most families were lazing around their yards (pretty unusual here for these hardworking people) this walk gave us a chance to see the real rural life. At every house, a throng of little kids came running out of the dusty yard and greenery, calling “Hello! Hello! Hello!”, waving and beaming at us. When we waved and called back, more kids came running. Mothers waved with infants on their hips. Fathers grinned from behind their rice wine or cans of Cambodian beer. Dogs listlessly approached and then plopped down in the dust. Chickens scurried. Cows lifted their heads but continued chewing. We bought sugar cane juice from one of the many machines parked in a driveway. The woman cranked sugar canes through the press, folded them, repeatedly pressing them. The juice dripped into a bowl inside the glass contraption, she scooped it out into a plastic bag, and tied it closed around a straw. It was delicious! Sweet, refreshing, lovely.

IMG_0715The other fabulous hikes were around Angkor Wat where our guide led us through shady forests, along flat paths and on top of the ancient stone walls surrounding the temple areas. The hikes here were easy and pleasant and much more appealing than hanging out with lots of tourists. Plus, walking puts us in touch with the environment, either nature or the people around us, much better than driving by can do. So, that’s why we walk.

http://cambodiacycling.com/Trekking.html

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Long Distance Hiking for Masochists – 101

We have hiked trails across the Netherlands, the Chilkoot Pass into Alaska, the Cape to Cape trail in Australia. We hiked the hills of Galilea and the Camino in Spain. However, I have decided that while I still enjoy walking, hiking Long Distance Trails were you have to carry a heavy pack is not for me:

Hiking long distance trails (LDT) is the ideal activity for masochists. As a sport it is rapidly gaining popularity worldwide as ever increasing networks of trails sprout up everywhere. However, even the most dedicated masochist needs to prepare before undertaking such an adventure. Here are some basic guidelines to help you on your way to a most painful experience you won’t want to miss.

Let’s start with a discussion on equipment. For maximum benefits you will need specialized clothing and other items as well as thorough preparations.

1. Equipment
Boots. The first thing you will need to buy is proper footwear. Boots. The heavier the better. Ensure that your boots are at least one, and preferably several, sizes too small. An effective style for long distance hiking is the prison style boot complete with ball and chain. This will add memorable moments to your hiking experience. Buying lightweight, waterproof boots is no fun. Socks will cost you about 20 dollars a pair. The label will tell you that these socks are ‘wicking’ – this means they circulate moisture. Buying wicked socks for 2.- per pair has the same desired result.
You will also need to select a jacket that allows moisture to be absorbed and retained both in and outside. Select shorts or capris that can be rolled up to expose as much flesh as possible. Blackflies, mosquitoes and brambles are all eagerly waiting for you. Don’t disappoint them by buying insect repelling clothing. People repelling clothing might be a better choice in some locations.
You will also need to select a suitable backpack. If you hike long distances you will need to decide on the size best suited for your particular trek. I recommended the largest size possible. You decide the proper size by filling the pack, with boulders, beyond capacity. If you cannot possibly lift it with both hands, it is just the right size to carry for the next several weeks.
Backpacks are measured in liters: 18, 30 or 40 liters are the most common sizes. This means you have a choice: you can either fill your backpack with stuff or with 40 liters of beer or wine. Based on experience I recommend the latter.
A backpack should have a waist strap. The purpose of the waist strap is to increase pressure on the bladder while hiking.
2. Food
If, however, you decide to take ‘stuff’, you might want to include food. You will likely not encounter a Starbucks or a bakery along the trail so keep this in mind as you select food and drink. Commonly recommended food is a freeze dried, lightweight, tasteless, processed blend of oats, barley and other indigestible dry flakes. These come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The most popular being bars or pellets. The advantage of pellets is that, if you have any leftovers at the end of your journey, you can use them as cattle feed or in your woodstove.
Select the most desirable type of freeze dried bars by offering one to your dog. If he refuses, you have found the kind you want to take along on your long distance hike.
3. Map
Be sure to look for a proper map or trail guide. Generally a map is at least ten years outdated. This poses no problem since any trail system worthy of its existence, has an accompanying website. The website will give you any changes and updates to add to your book. Print off all 86 pages to carry along. Any pages you don’t need anymore can be used during sanitary stops. (you didn’t really expect toilet buildings and 4 ply out there, did you?).
If, at any point during your hike, you get bored I recommend holding the map upside down for a few kilometers. This adds greatly to the excitement.
Many LDT have, in addition to maps, an easy to follow system of markers. These consist of faint, barely visible paint stripes on trees or posts. For maximum enjoyment select a trail that runs near, and is often intersected by another trail system with similar signs: white and red stripes mixed with faint yellow and red stripes works great. The more often these trails cross, the better your changes of following the wrong trail for a while. The other thing that adds to the fun is when trees with signs on them have been cut down, allowing you to wander aimlessly for hours before spotting another faint white stripe on the trunk of an birch tree.
 
4. Accommodations
Unless you chose to sleep in a tent the size of a ziploc bag, you will have to book hostels along the way. A hostel offers an inexpensive place to sleep to the weary hiker. The inexpensive bed entails a creaking bunkbed, sometimes with sheet, blanket and lumpy pillow. I recommend a bottom bunk since the top bunk has no ladder and no sides. Save these top bunks for entertainment. Hikers who arrive after you will have to hoist themselves up there. If you are lucky you can observe them tumbling down in the dead of night. A string of swear words will follow.
Most hostels have beds for up to 40 people per room. This increases your changes of no sleep at all since at least 30% of your fellow hikers will snore loudly, have nightmares – no doubt of hiking LDT – and will happily leave their very smelly, sweaty prison style boots next to the head end of your bunkbed. As a rule

, 80% of any female fellow hikers will have to get up at least twice during the night to use the bathroom. These were the ones with 40 liters packs.

5. Terrain
When selecting the terrain for your your hike, be sure to pay attention to the type of vegetation and weather conditions. 40% chance of showers will likely mean a nonstop drizzle. This also increases your chance of mosquito encounters.
Knee high thistles and brambles are recommended. What else are you going to complain about afterwards?
6. Fellow trail users
At night, in the hostel, it is recommended that you make contact with fellow hikers. The purpose of these social encounters is to compare the size of mosquito bites, the numbers of times you were lost and wandered aimlessly and the spots along the trail where you waded knee deep in cow paddies or mud puddles. Do not, under any circumstances, discuss the appealing scenery, the solitude of the trail or the thrill of being in nature.
Do, however, pay close attention to any other trail LDT systems recommended by these experienced hikers. Take notes. This will ensure you many more years of suffering. Unless you took my advise on backpacks and filled yours with 40 liters of wine.