Our apartment in Siena was in an aged building inside the city walls up one flight of marble stairs. There was a great view out of the windows over the tiled roofs of the town and in the distance the Tuscan hills.
It was just a five minute walk from the Piazza del Campo, the large medieval square in the heart of the historic centre.
On one side is the famous Fountain of Joy (Fonte Gaia), the white marble sculptured fountain dating from the fifteenth century. Over 30 metres of tunnels had to be constructed to bring water into the city centre, a herculean task.
On another stands the imposing red brick Torre del Mangia constructed between 1325 and 1348. At 87 metres tall it is the third biggest tower in Italy. The bell ringer had to climb 400 steps each time to ring the hours. You can buy a ticket to go inside but we were not inclined to follow in his footsteps.
Twice a year during the summer sixty thousand people squeeze into the Campo to watch the famous Palio or horse race. Each horse races for a historical neighbourhood (cantrada) of Siena. The competition is fierce and as saddles are not permitted it is also dangerous. There are usually a few falls each year and an occasional jockey fatality.
During our visit there were plenty of tourists in the city but not overwhelmingly so. Visitors’ cars are banned from Siena so there are only residents’ cars and taxis on the streets. The weather was on our side with blue skies apart from a couple of showers. It was a great temperature to walk around in, with highs no greater than 22.
We toured through the Duomo (which has an amazing incised pictorial marble floor which took several centuries to complete). Another highlight was the Cathedral crypt whose walls are covered in fresco masterpieces. The crypt was filled with rubble 700 years ago to form the foundations for a new cathedral. It was accidentally rediscovered during some renovations in 1999. As the frescoes had been protected from light for all time the brilliant original colours can be seen in all their glory.
During the remainder of our stay in Siena we saw more wonderful religious art and admired many statues of Romulus and the she-wolf which are part of Siena’s legendary history as well as Rome’s. We browsed in shops where beautifully decorated ceramic plates, bowls and platters were on display, indulged in deliciously cooling gelatos (in a rainbow of colours and different flavours) and just soaked in the history from the ancient streets.
Despite John’s great sense of direction we did lose our way several times. He blamed it on the fact that there is not a straight road in the town, although street names are fortunately found at most corners. But it was fun to get lost in the evenings and to explore some dark alleys.
We caught local buses to two other adjacent towns; the small walled hill fort of Monteriggioni ( which included a fairly steep 300 metre walk to the castle from the bus stop) and the bigger but also ancient town of Asciano. Here was a fascinating archaeological museum inside an old palace with Etruscan burial boxes dating back well over 2000 years. Away from the city the verdant rolling countryside was dressed in soft spring greens.
It surprised us how much cheaper eating both in and out was than in New Zealand. We ate in about half the time. It was easy to just gather up good bread, cheeses, prosciutto and olives. Fresh vegetables and fruit were abundant in the local market. And I whipped up several pasta meals. We loved the quality and variety of pasta available here.
One evening we dined in a small restaurant, its walls covered in family photographs. I really enjoyed their fish ravioli with tomato, olive and caper sauce. John had a wild boar stew. We shared a ½ litre of a very passable house wine.
And to celebrate John’s birthday we booked a table at Osterio del Gusto (which had a high rating on Trip Advisor). Over a candlelit dinner we shared an antipasti platter of cold meats, cheeses and a little warm spinach terrine. For the main course I had braised beef cheek with roast potato wedges and spinach. John had osso bucco. The dessert was an irresistible molten chocolate pudding served with a reduced orange sauce.
We loved Siena, its art and food and relaxed atmosphere, and would heartily recommend going there. After staying 5 nights we headed off for Italy’s coastal region of the Cinque Terre.
Reviews by Lyn Potter
Parent and grandparent, Avid traveler, writer & passionate home cook