Late morning. Saturday. Siena. The pre-noon sun is casting storybook shadows on the curving facades and colorful shutters of this hilltop ‘city’ in southern Tuscany, and I follow the seemingly countless nonnas and nonnos toward the center. My suitcase trails behind me (4 wheels are useless on these cobblestones, and I end up dragging it along), and I cannot help but stop every few seconds to attempt to capture this and that shadow. The suitcase begins to roll down the lanes as I clumsily hold my camera to my face, a haphazard photographer on the loose.
I have taken the ‘rapida‘ bus from Florence, and I am here for the first time to get a taste of Siena and to see what everyone has been oohing and ahhing about for centuries. I have said ‘non ho mai visto Siena’ one too many times, and now, just five minutes off of the bus, I completely understand the universal love for this architecturally unique city.
I check into the Grand Hotel Continental Siena, the grand dame of the town and in my opinion the only option for a luxury hotel in the center. It is most conveniently located just down the hill from the bus, in fact, my suitcase nearly arrived before me, my having left it to its own devices while I am sidetracked with my camera. The internal sitting area is enclosed in a quadruple height ceiling glass tower; light streams in all day, giving the main room and its bar a cheerful disposition. Room 239 is decorated in sumptuous, colorful fabrics and handsome antiques, a Murano glass chandelier hangs from a high ceiling finished with wood beams, and there is quite enough room to teach a yoga class. Best of all, and something that brings squeals of joy, is the painting of a view from my tall swing-open windows. I cast them open for a heaping dose of fresh Tuscan air; the curtains dance in the breeze and the sound of faint Sienese voices and distant contadini drift inside. Sono contenta. Southern Tuscany and Sienese rooftops will do just fine. More to come about this palatial hotel in pt 2.
The sky is as blue as paint, and I am eager to return to the cobble stones with my camera. But first, caffe. I head straight to Torrefazione Fiorella, just up the street from the hotel. It is a tiny, narrow bar, just big enough for about 10 people if we cram, and I spin a few circles to observe the Sienese’s Saturday morning behavior and rituals. The cafe is as vecchia as time and the service far friendlier than the much larger Nannini down the street. There is a small village vibe here. I have my cappuccino standing next to a tall Sicilian who is studying here in Siena. He tells me how much he loves it here but how he wants to travel around the world- to India, Australia, and South America- and finally back home to Sicilia where life is so wonderful. He is eating a small cornetto that looks simple but divine, and after watching 5 or 6 more customers order the same thing, I am intrigued. He breaks me a piece of his breakfast after trying to convince me that it is the lightest choice in the case. It is less flaky than a croissant, far lighter than a muffin or a cake, with just a hint of cream and dusted with confectioners sugar. It is so good, I order my own Impastata Vuota and then thank New York for having no idea how to make them. It is a crying shame that Fiorella is closed on Sundays, because truly there is no where else where I would like to have my morning cappuccino, but on the positive side I am thus cut off from additional Impastata Vuotas.
Caffeinated, foamed, and delightfully stuffed with my ’empty brioche,’ I follow the sunlight up the winding, gently curving lanes. The Sienese are coming out to enjoy the day; the hub slowly moves towards the piazza and I dare walk straight past it. I want to see the snippets of views from the top of the alleyways, the peekaboo churches and colorful shutters. On a clear sky day, the town is awash in a glow of its own shape and form.
I have absolutely no idea where I am going. I walk aimlessly, noticing how few shops and restaurants there are once I leave the main street above the Piazza, and I take note of the high number of older residents climbing these San Francisco-esque streets. I cannot imagine how slippery this place must be in the rain. Good thing they do not get snow.
Slightly more confused than when I am wandering around Venice, I find myself at the Duomo di Siena and am utterly astounded. The facade is perhaps the most impressive I have ever seen, with gargoyles, saints, and a mixture of architectural styles including French Gothic, Tuscan Romanesque, and Classical. Giovanni Pisano’s masterpiece is in itself worth a trip to this magical city in southern Tuscany. I adore the light pink with the rich green doors, and I crane my neck for as long as I can to take in the details on the west side of the facade. It is utterly incredible how much detail is carved into the marble (although many are replicas; the originals are housed in the Opera del Duomo), and how it was all accomplished in the 12th and 13th century. Apparently there were plans to enlarge the cathedral so that it trumped St. Peter’s in Rome, but alas, the Black Death swept the city of eighty percent of its population, and the grand ambitions fell through. I cannot imagine it any more spectacular than it is, and if you have the time to get into a slow-hilltop-town rhythm, I highly suggest snagging a sunny spot on the steps and rewarding yourself with a few hours with one of the world’s most mesmerizing creations.
Pangs of hunger. If you prefer to eat simply and ‘light,’ you are in for a challenge. Siena is known for its wild boar sauce and its succulent Sienese meats, but alas, there are also flavorful Tuscan vegetables. All of the restaurants source from local farms, so I sit down at one of the oldest trattorie in the center: Papei, for a plate of spinach and grilled artichokes in the Piazza del Mercato. Three generations have run Papei since 1939, and I notice many a Sienese family arriving for casual Saturday lunch at a very reasonable price. Satiated with my Tuscan greens, I head to the Botanical Gardens for a mid-day walk.
After a day on my feet going up and down the steep hills of the center, I treat myself to an evening in my luxurious room at the Grand Hotel Continental. It is a full moon and a stupendous sunset; I sit on my bed with a cup of tea, the windows open, listening to the music of the church bells and watching the hot pinks and oranges sink behind the rooftops of Siena. This is slow, hilltop living at its very best.
Pt 2 will include the Botanical Gardens, more about the Grand Hotel Continental, and a Sunday morning walk in Siena.
Torrefazione Fiorella for Coffee and impasta vuota. Via di Citta, 13.
Duomo di Siena
Trattoria Papei, Via del Mercato
Grand Hotel Continental, Via Banchi di Sopra