Begin here, with Saturday, aka pt 1.
It is off season in Siena, and I am one of very few tourists turning circles in the gently curving hilltop streets of this Southern Tuscan ‘city.’ Everyone moves towards the piazza like small marbles funneling towards a magnetic center. Meanwhile, I carry on in the opposite direction, the Sienese pass me with expressions of confusion; I must clearly be lost if I choose to move away from the center of social life. The Botanical Gardens, located just inside the ancient city walls near Porta Tufi, are not bursting with color in February, but I welcome the hymn of the birds, the peace of the rolling green hills below, and the tall trees casting shadows along the path to the greenhouse. I am alone except for a mother and her daughter studying the names of the plants in the greenhouse, and a little voice squeals ancient names of plants and herbs with great pride. I can imagine how often I would come here with a book if I were a Sienese.
Siena is indeed a family town; for every adult there is one child and one grandparent, and for every pasticceria selling panforte and ricciarelli, a typical Sienese biscuit dating from the 14th century, there is one toy store and one children’s clothing store. My hotel, the five star Grand Hotel Continental Siena, a member of Leading Hotels of the World, is a reprieve from the joyous sounds of bambini on Via Banchi di Sopra. Its location is ideal for those arriving from the bus from Firenze, and it blends in superbly with the elegant, historical palazzi on this wide, cobble stoned street. Directly across in Palazzo Salimbeni is the oldest surviving bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, a bank on nearly every corner of every Italian town and city. This original location and current headquarters is pristinely maintained in a gothic architectural gem that looks like a scene from a fairytale. Imagine, a bank with more than 2,200 locations, stays true to its origins and offers its customers not only 21st century banking but an art collection and historical documents spanning half a millennium to boot.
I am amazed by the hush once inside the quadruple height ceiling sitting area, enclosed in a glass ceiling with Sienese sun filtering in throughout the day. There is no reason for me to climb the bell tower for 360 degree views of the rooftops and surrounding countryside, for I have my own private view from Room 239. Siena may be a slow-living hill town, but the Grand Hotel Continental is a beacon of five-star service akin to that of any cosmopolitan city. Nabil is a friendly face at the front desk, tailcoat and all, and Laura is an efficient, honest concierge with exactitude and an expert’s knowledge of Siena.
The hotel itself is located in a 17th century palazzo built for one of Siena’s wealthiest aristocratic families. Grand rooms and halls with 17th century frescoes, Murano glass chandeliers, and atmospheric antiquities lend an opulence that feels more historic rather than impersonal. As architecturally unique as Siena is, the Grand Hotel Continental was a true highlight of my visit to this ancient hill town; it perfectly balances an aura of luxury with authenticity, offering Sienese history and characteristic attributes of its location in spades.
For a taste (literally- it is a gourmet store) of modernity in an elegant palazzo literally next door to the hotel, I head to Consorzio Agrario, where I find the best of everything. It is like a Dean & Deluca in Siena. Fresh, local produce, an organic ‘salad bar,’ fresh and dry pasta galore, biscuits of all types and flavors, bread baked before your eyes, incredible ‘integrale’ cookies, endless olive oil and wine, an outstanding butcher, and wonderful gourmet gifts. Consorzio feels centuries ahead of an otherwise traditional, ancient city. It is also an ideal stop before boarding the bus to return to Firenze.
Buy gourmet gifts at Consorzio Agrario
Get a taste of Tuscany within the ancient walls at the Botanical Gardens
Visit the oldest surviving bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi, in the elegant Piazza Salimbeni
Rest your head in historical style at Grand Hotel Continental Siena