Like many cities in Europe, Florence once had walls around it. In the nineteenth century the civic leaders decided that, with the threat of invading barbarian hordes at an all-time low, it would be better to tear down the walls and replace them with wide viale, or boulevards, that encircle the city. Perhaps they shouldn’t have. Indeed, many of the things we dislike about Florence (noisy traffic, narrow sidewalks, people who use the streets as their trash can), might not exist here if there were still a decent set of walls around the place. Fortunately, the towns we visited in the Sienese countryside did not make such a grievous error.
On a cold, clear day just after New Year’s, we rented a white Fiat Panda just big enough to hold Melanie and me plus our shared suitcase, and drove south from Florence through the Chianti hills toward Siena. Navigating the route was not too hard, but trickier than it should have been. Driving directions in Italy are difficult for several reasons. First, street names change every few blocks. This can be confusing, maddening or frightening depending on your familiarity with the system (or rather lack thereof). Perhaps because of these constant changes, street signs with actual street names are nonexistent. The only signs are those indicating the next town.
Google Maps gives directions the American way, complete with right turns, left turns and street names, which are nearly useless here. Thank goodness for roundabouts; I’m convinced they exist so people can drive around them several times before they figure out which way to go, and so drivers can reverse direction after the inevitable wrong turn. Despite all these potential pitfalls, we managed to make it to Siena with only a couple slight detours and stops to check the map.
Built on the tallest hill in the region to deter invaders from places like Florence (Siena’s historical rival), Siena enjoys 360-degree views (once strategic, now simply scenic) of the surrounding countryside. While Florence’s golden age was during the Renaissance, Siena had its heyday in the Middle Ages. Its art and architecture reflect that, and its Medieval flavor is preserved by ancient walls that completely encircle the city. These walls mean that parking and driving in the city are vietato (forbidden), so we had to find one of the several car parks placed around the city and leave the Panda behind.
Once we parked the car we had to find a way to go up a steep incline to the nearest portal through the walls. Melanie said she spotted an escalator. I thought she was joking, but in fact there was one, or rather a series of five escalators, leading straight up to a portal. We grew hopeful; this kind of thoughtful planning is nonexistent in Florence. Perhaps the interior of the city would show evidence of care as well.
We were not disappointed. Siena’s streets are clean, cobbled and without sidewalks since pedestrians rule the streets. The air was clear and fresh, the cold wind carrying the sounds of people walking and window shopping. The ubiquitous buzz of motorini (scooters) in Florence is noticeably absent in Siena. Even the people seem happier here, smiling while strolling arm in arm and gazing into stores. No games of Sidewalk Gladiator here.
As with most of our trips (indeed, most of our life), one of our main focuses in Siena was food. After checking into our room we headed toward a restaurant called Papei that was recommended by the man at the front desk. There was a long line of people outside—usually a good sign of quality, but a bad sign since we were hungry and it was cold outside. Luckily they had a table for two. We were led up a narrow staircase to a small seating area that looked out over the rest of the restaurant below, with four tables placed under vaulted brick ceilings. The host tucked us into the corner and gave us menus in German. Uh-oh…we have been living in Italy long enough that we are mistaken for Europeans. My high school German didn’t help much, but luckily our culinary Italian is good. Melanie ordered Tagliatelle con coniglio (with rabbit), and I ordered the Pappardelle con cinghiale (wild boar—I now order cinghiale every chance I get, and am currently trying to convince Melanie to serve it at our wedding). Both were excellent, but the highlight of the meal was dessert. Here we discovered ricciarrelli, an almond cookie native to Siena. It is light and airy, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside with a slight almond flavor and topped with powdered sugar. The three we were given were not nearly enough. With our bellies full and minds still on the ricciarrelli, we headed toward the main attraction of the city: Il Campo.
Siena is most famous for two things. The first is its scallop-shell-shaped Piazza del Campo (aka Il Campo), considered to be the most beautiful piazza in the world. The second is Il Palio, a bareback horse race which has been held in the Piazza del Campo every year since 1283. Each of the seventeen contrade, or sections of the city, has its own horse and rider festooned in the contrada‘s colors. The winning contrada has bragging rights for the year, and as a result much bribing, fixing and tampering occurs every race. Before coming to Italy Melanie and I had contemplated seeing Il Palio in person. After we were living here we watched it on television. With all the drunken revelers crammed into it, we are glad we came in the off season; the piazza is much more beautiful.
The curved part of the piazza is lined with restaurants, and at the bottom of the shell lies the Palazzo Pubblico with the tallest tower in Siena: the Torre del Mangia. Since we arrived late, we decided to save the tour of the Palazzo and climb up the Torre for the next day. We snapped a couple pictures and headed toward the city’s main cathedral, also called the Duomo, and the smattering of museums connected with it.
I’ll be honest. After living in Italy for six months, the constant parade of religious art can get a little tiring. I understand why people continued to use the same subjects century after century, but it is difficult to look at the same themes of Jesus, Madonna and Child, lives of saints and the like. I have learned to appreciate the skills of the artists and the differing techniques through the ages, but still; it’s like seeing the same movie over and over again, only the director and actors change. Having said that, Siena did offer some treats. There was an inlaid mosaic floor in the cathedral, beautiful frescoes in a library in that same building, and my personal favorite: a giant stained glass window perfectly preserved in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. Easily thirty feet wide and twenty feet tall, its colors unfaded and undamaged by time, weather and wars, I was amazed someone was able to create such an intricate, delicate work, much less do it with the technology available hundreds of years ago. Though the word is overused, in this case it holds true: it is an absolute masterpiece. We also climbed the unfinished nave of the cathedral (an ambitious plan abandoned in 1348 since the bubonic plague had halved the taxable population), which offered beautiful views of the town and surrounding countryside.
After that we headed back to the hotel and got ready for dinner. We decided on a restaurant called Il Carroccio, or the Broken Carriage,just south of Il Campo. The restaurant radiated the warmth of an authentic Tuscan restaurant: wooden tables, walls and ceilings of earth and wood worn with time, bricks and beams steeped in smells and sounds of meals past. Little things told us we were off the well worn tourist trail. Although the menus had translations, no one in the restaurant spoke English. We were greeted and seated in Italian. The décor was nothing fancy—framed family photographs hung haphazardly on the walls. The kitchen and wait station were visible from the dining area, and the employees’ attire was indistinguishable from the patrons’. These were all good signs.
When we arrived only a few people were dining there, but it very quickly filled up. Soon people were coming in and getting turned away immediately. After telling many people the restaurant was “completo” (full), the manager simply locked the door to prevent the steady stream of hopeful pedestrians from entering. Since Melanie and I were seated right by the door, we were grateful for the reduction in traffic and cold air. There was more to the man’s gesture than this, though. Unlike American restaurants where waiters smile at you pleasantly and tell you to take your time as they leave the check but really mean get the hell out of here, Tuscan restaurateurs make the guests feel like, well, guests. Most restaurants are family-owned, so the families want to make customers feel like they are eating in someone’s home, not a business. Here you never feel rushed, never feel like they need the table for anyone other than you.
Melanie was still full from lunch. I on the other hand had no such issues. In the list of appetizers there was something called “Medieval Antipasto,” an easy choice. I’m a firm believer in ordering anything with the word “Medieval” in its name. Melanie ordered a pumpkin risotto (one of her favorite dishes in Italy), and I ordered a meat-and-mushroom dish called polpettone. The Medieval appetizers came and looked rather, um, unconventional. It was a sample platter of crostini and other items, and I knew some of the samples had to be organ meat. Good thing my Italian is really bad. I didn’t bother asking what the stuff was; I just ate it. Most of it was excellent, although some of it I would characterize as “adventurous,” but in a good way. I polished off all the excellent ones, and at least tried the adventurous ones. Our main courses were wonderful, as was the pear and chocolate cake for dessert.
But the meal was only half the reason why we loved the place. The manager (perhaps owner?) had the warm, welcoming Italian spirit of hospitality we have found in many of the people we have met here. He socialized with the guests, even sitting at a table with some diners, and made sure everyone was happy. After our meal he passed by our table and gave us some grappa, a liqueur favored in these parts that is made from the skins of grapes. You could tell he loved making people happy by serving them great food. When we left, I told him we had “una cena perfetta” (a perfect dinner). He responded warmly as we exited onto the cold streets of Siena back to our hotel.
We slept well and awoke to another day of blue sky. After breakfast at the hotel we headed toward Il Campo again, this time to see the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia. The Torre del Mangia served for centuries as Siena’s lookout tower. Now it offers tourists the best views in Tuscany. The climb is a long, steep, spiral staircase that like the outside of the tower is made of brick. It took a good deal of time to enter the staircase (they allow people up in shifts every thirty minutes or so), although the climb itself was not bad. When we reached the top the cold wind blew at us from all sides, but it was well worth it. The views were spectacular in all directions, even if we had to maneuver around the bell that had once served as Siena’s alarm clock, end-of-work bell, curfew bell and warning signal. A thin morning mist still clung to the hills, but the clear winter air afforded views for miles.
From the tower the large piazza below still looks big, although it fits in your field of vision. You can also see the entire old city, buildings straining against the walls that barely contain them. The colors are quintessential Tuscan patchwork quilt: reds and greens and browns and the muted gray of the mist. We wanted to stay up there for hours and take hundreds of pictures, but the cold air eventually forced us into the warmer confines of the Palazzo Pubblico.
The Palazzo had some artwork depicting Sienese life in the Middle Ages, a welcome break from the religious monotony. I’ve always liked art like this since it gives a glimpse of what the world was like back then, or at least how the artist saw that life. An especially detailed one called Allegories of Good and Bad Government shows all the elements of life (farmers and tradesmen as well as city social life) in and around Siena. We wound our way through other rooms, but our empty stomachs and desire to get to our next destination led us to a pizzeria in the piazza. We wisely opted for an indoor table even though some brave souls were dining al fresco. The meal was good, and as we walked back to our car we were sad to leave such a charming city so soon. Still, we were looking forward to our next stops—two more walled hill towns— Monteriggioni and San Gimignano.
Copyright Axel Schwarz