When talking about Tuscany, Florence comes to everyone’s mind first. Although Florence is exceptional, it would be unfair not to mention all of those beautiful small villages and towns scattered around that give Tuscany that beautiful charm. Ever since I first saw the documentary about race of Palio I wanted to visit Siena, Florence’s ancient and bitter rival.
Inside the city walls of Siena, in a storefront pace barely bigger than a coat closet, spectacular examples of rare Italian art from the 14th century are stacked on the floor. A woman sits in front of me busily creating another one, copying the Sienese masterwork from a two-page magazine photo that has been patched together with cellophane tape.
The still wet painting looks like most I’ve seen in museums. It looked the same, but it had a different soul. Of course, paintings were for sale but since I just started my tour I did not want to walk around the town with tube in my hand. Instead I headed for macchiato to a local caffè.
I am a big fan of macchiato (espresso with a drop of milk) and where better to enjoy finest macchiato than in Italy. I was sitting on a street terrace and my face was soaking late autumn’s sun rays. Oh, by the way if you order a drink or beverage on the outdoors terrace you will pay larger price than if you order it inside the bar. I still don’t get it, but that’s Italy.
I was wondering what marvels are hidden to tourists who don’t know where to look. Up the highway, the streets of Florence are filled with American backpackers checking off the delights of the Renaissance one by one in their Rough Guides. But Siena, Florence’s ancient and bitter rival, is far more difficult for a fly by visitor to get his mind around. There is no familiar Duomo or Michelangelo’s David here, no image of the city to fix in the mind’s eye. On the city’s serpentine streets, foreign languages are rarely heard.
In my brief chat with the waiter, whose English was not so good I found out that Siena has many tourists but they stay only half a day. After I finished sipping my macchiato I ordered a glass of Tuscany’s trade mark wine Chianti Classico produced by Gabbiano Winery, in the hills outside the city, because it seems to combine the earthiness of rustic, old style Chiantis with the freshness and ripe fruit notes that are the benefit of modern enological techniques.
After I finished my Chainti it was time to explore the city. I was walking the streets where feet have trod for more than 1,000 years and gaze into windows filled with rows of impossibly stylish shoes, and I can almost imagine what it would be like to be part of Sienese society.
I step inside Pasticceria Nannini with the knowing air of regulars. Part bar, part tea room, part exalted pastry shop, Nannini has been in this location only since 1956, a blink of the eye in Tuscan time, but everyone who’s anyone in Siena gathers there on weekday mornings for an Italian breakfast: a roll, a cappuccino, and the latest gossip.
The Nannini family itself is a source of much of it. Daughter Gianna is a rock star, while son Alessandro was a racer on the Formula 1 circuit until his forearm was severed in a 1990 helicopter accident.
This time I enjoyed some tramezzini and talked with the nice girl named Sofia who was sitting near me. Her English was pretty good for an Italian. Her family is producing wine for a decades. She runs the commercial side of her family’s winery. “I don’t like wines that are too strong, too modern, too international,” she says. ”A wine should taste like the land where it comes from.”
We spent more than an hour chatting about wine and food that our appetite became too big for Patisicceria Nannini. I asked if she can recommend some nice authentic restaurants and Sofia replied to her own delight that just across the Il Campo square lies beautiful osteria that serves genuine Sienese food, the perfect accompaniment to Chianti.
Suddenly, I am overcome by a fierce and capacious hunger. I’d eaten a plain breakfast at my hotel hours before, and now I realize that it is past noon and I had only one tramezzini.
But when I ask about lunch, the Sofia’s look aghast. Only in Florence are restaurants open so early, it turns out, and only to appease the American and British tourists. Our reservation is booked for 1:30.
Battle for Tuscany
The most Important building in Siena, the Palazzo Pubblico, looks as if it had been designed by a clever 10-year-old using a Lego set. Balanced precariously on one end, a tower soars uneasily into the Tuscan sky. On the other side, the building veers sharply downward.
The look is disproportionate, imperfect, unnerving. But that’s part of the building’s charm and Siena’s, too. With each hour I spend in Siena, I realize that Florence is too perfect. Every piazza in Florence is a revelation, every statue a masterwork. There is no room for imagination. While waiting for our osteria to open Sofia told me a brief history of Siena.
Once, Siena was as important as Florence. But the Black Death in 1348 took care of that, killing more than 70,000. Two centuries later, a Sienese tyrant who called himself II Magnifico rose to power, and though he ruled his subjects with a casual cruelty, he at least made the Florentines nervous. But in 1555, Florence allied with Spain and laid siege to Siena, starving its inhabitants. By the time it was over, only about 8,000 Sienese remained. Siena never recovered.
Through the centuries, the Sienese looked at Florence with a mixture of arrogance and inferiority. Though Florence is no more than an hour’s drive up the road, they refuse to go there for anything but an absolute necessity. They eat their local food, drink their local wine, and keep their lovely little city to themselves except for the 2 days each year when they throw the biggest party in Italy.
The race of Palio
Siena’s Palio is a frenzied, 90-second spectacle that defines the city’s spirit. Horses and jockeys representing various neighborhoods set off on a mad dash of three laps around the city’s cobblestone main square. Most aren’t able to manage more than a few comers before they trip or skid or collide with another horse and fly off into the crowd. Injuries are common, for both participants and spectators. The winner of the race brings immeasurable glory to his home district.
The Palio, held once in July and once in August, defines Siena the way the running of the bulls defines Pamplona. If you are interested in the history of Palio you should visit renowned collection of Palio artwork in one of many privately held Contrada (neighborhoods) available for viewing only by appointment.
Finally, lunch time arrives. We cross Il Campo, where the Pallo is held under the looming shadow of the Palazzo Pubblico lonely tower. Tourists typically eat at one of the restaurants that border the plaza, but Sofia takes me down a narrow street to Osteria Le Logge. We arrive at 1:15 and are the first customers in the restaurant. An hour later, every table is filled with well-dressed Italians.
Le Logge is an old pharmacy, and the original cabinets remain. Now they’re stocked with wine bottles,grappa, glasses and stacks of books about food and wine, and more wine bottles.
The room has the handsome look of a New York speakeasy circa 1925. The floor is black-and-white tile, the walls white washed. The menu is filled with things I’ve never tasted before. Sofia tells me that one can eat very well in Siena if you stick to the local specialties. Stuffed chicken neck. Veal hoof. Classic Tuscan dishes like that.
I didn’t go that far, but I did eat grilled beef tongue with lemon; tomato sauce with ground rabbit over pillows of fluffy potato gnocchi, and stracotto al vino rosso, a rectangular slab of deliciously overcooked beef. Each bite is better than the one before.
I drink glass after glass of the 2001 Podere Il Palazzino Argenina, which is made in big wooden vats so the oak doesn’t overly influence the taste. The wine is fruity and simple. Then we have the 2001 La Pieve, a bigger, more structured Chianti made from the stony soil of four different vineyards.
Sofia then introduced me to the 2000 Grosso Sanese. Made from 100 percent Sangiovese grown in a 2-hectare vineyard of the driest oil, it is rich, ripe, and concentrated. It tastes of black cherries and a hint of Tuscan dust. Despite all the wine that has come and gone before, we finish the bottle. The rest of the time we spent in this lovely osteria is a bit vague since the wine took his toll. I just remember that I arranged meeting with Sofia for tomorrow for another tour of Siena. After leaving her I stumbled to my hotel for a nap.
Italians judge each other by their shoes. Next day, I’ve felt Sofia eyeing mine and just managing to hold her tongue. They’re perfectly nice lace-ups, but they’re battered and scratched. Now she pointedly delivers me to the best shoemaker in Siena, and perhaps all Tuscany, Alessandro Stella.
From his small workshop in Siena’s shopping area, Mr. Stella makes shoes of supple leather. His ready-made pairs cost about $500, but they only come in the several sizes and some shoes that I admire in the window aren’t available at all. Since I wear size 46 (US 11) I was no suppressed that Alessandro had hard time finding a pair for me.
The full treatment, a made-to-order design, requires several fittings and more than a month of labor. It also costs about $1,000. Instead, I announce my intention to buy some fine Italian shirts, so Sofia takes me to Modi di Campagna, where the merchandise is not only far more reasonable but also marked down 20 percent as part of an off-season sale.
After a quick return visit to Nannini for an apéritif, we head to Ristorante Guido Dal 1935 for dinner. Guido, founded in 1935, is evidently a site of some renown; the walls are covered with photos of generations of Italian movie stars.
We ordered a bottle of Grosso Sanese and small crostini smeared with a pâté of chicken spleen which are unaccountably delicious. Long ribbons of tagliatelle accompany more ground rabbit, even darker and earthier than what I had at lunch. The 2001 Grosso Sanese isn’t as round and full as the 2000 but has the elegant strength. Then we open the 1998, which is silky and Bordeaux-like and utterly gorgeous.
We’d planned to finish at a bar in town that makes its own grappa, but a bottle of the Sdercis’ Vin Santo materializes. The caramel-colored Vin Santo is sweet like a dessert wine but strong and complex like a single-malt scotch, and before I realize it, we’ve stayed most of the night.
I was in bed that night feeling like a member of a most exclusive club, an initiate into the ways of one of the world’s great and mysterious places. Fortified by my secret knowledge, I’m ready for Florence.
Now I realized I had not written more than a few words about Palio race. I was not in Siena during the race and I haven’t experienced it, but I definitely will the next time I visit Siena, since this little town deserves to be seen and experienced several times.
Recommended Hotels in Siena
Palazzo Ravizza ***
A Renaissance palace refitted as a pensione in the 1920’s, it could use an upgrade. But the rooms are clean and spacious, with soaring ceilings, antique furnishings, and magnificent views of the city. Rooms from $144 per night.
Grand Hotel Continental *****
The Hotel is housed in Palazzo Gori Pannilini, which was built in 17th century. The rooms have gorgeous frescoes on the ceilings, but in my opinion hefty price tag might not be worth the experience. Rates begin at $320 per night.
Castello di Casole *****
This boutique hotel is situated in restored castle on a remarkable estate. Since it is situated on a hill, you can enjoy great view of the Tuscan countryside. Rates begin at 200 EUR up to 590 EUR per night, but they often offer affordable discount prices.
Where to eat in Siena
Osteria La Logge
Via del Porrione 33 (off Piazza del Campo), 011-39-0577-48013
Ristorante Guido Dal 1935
Moderate to expensive.
Vicolo Pier Pettinaio 7, 011-39-0577-280042
Open all day until late in the evening, this shop serves house- made pastries, coffee, tea, and alcoholic beverages.
Via Massetana Romana 42/44, 011-39-0577-285208
Podere II Palazzino is a relatively new estate set in the heart of the Chianti Classico appellation. The wines produced there are all red, terrifically good, and severely underpriced.
The 2001 Chianti Classico Argenlna is made predominantly from young wines of the Sangiovese grape, though as much as 5 percent of Canaiolo is added.
The 2001 Chianti Classico La Pleve is mostly Sangiovese with some Malvasia Nera. This wine is deeper and more complex than the Argenina.
The 2000 Chianti Classico Grosso Sanese is 100 percent Sangiovese from a single, southeast facing vineyard on the Palazzino estate. The wine is aged for 18 months in French oak barrels, a third of which are new. Dark, rich, intense, and About 10,000 bottles are made, and half of them are exported, mostly to the United States.