Talk about serendipity. Over the long Ascension weekend my husband’s company gave him a car to test for a minimum stretch of 1000 km, and I had always dreamed of going to Tuscany.
So we packed our finest clothes to go with the full-option BMW 5 series (amazing how sudden wealth changes people 😉 ) – which didn’t take too long seeing as we don’t really own any fine clothes – made a last-minute reservation on the Internet, threw the crib in the trunk and off we went.
The car cruised beautifully through the Brenner Pass and down into warm-hot-hotter Italy without any traffic jams. Smoothly it glided towards our destination as if on a pillow of air, and quite comfortably, too, if you don’t count my daughter’s incessant hysterical yelling and the fact that she squeezed the whole chocolate out of a croissant into my lap, on my only decent pants. We stopped at a gas station in the mountains to buy my son a pretzel and give him a chance to pee, and I ended up looking like I had just shit my pants. Obviously, at the exact moment when my boiling blood had soared to the white of my eyes and to the tips of my ears and I was finally ready to pull every single hair out of my scalp, an old lady comes smiling by with a half-encouraging half-chastising “Oh, now, it’s not so bad…” Did you ever notice how these old women always sort of materialize out of nowhere and – completely without context – always know better? 🙂 I had half a mind to lend her my daughter for the rest of the trip – see how relaxed you are after hours of uninterrupted noise levels of 90 dB and rising… But I diverge.
After Florence the roads got bumpier and once we passed Siena we were in rural territory, on the lookout for arrows pointing us to our hotel. We knew our accommodation would be near a spa & wellness resort, but we had no idea our accommodation was the spa & wellness resort. In a 14th century hunting mansion and former monastery that had once hosted a Pope (and more famously, the Pope’s horse)! At the end of a dirt and gravel road lined with cypresses! Lost amid the rolling Tuscan hills, surrounded only by vast rustic domains! The kind of place where, by the side of the ever narrowing ribbon of a road, rippling soft-green pastures are dappled with poppies the color of young blood. Large farms scattered here and there on the slopes squat cozily among olive groves, peach orchards and lush family gardens. Acacia and elder trees, rambler roses and irises in full bloom. You get the picture.
And then the house itself. Two stories of bare brick in the typical Siena tan, with an aristocratic entrance and old wooden doors the size of fortress gates. Statues in the hallway and everything. Coats of arms on the walls, geraniums in pots, old wells adorned with wrought iron. Swimming pool, an inner patio with long chairs under cherry and mulberry trees, and a sauna in the former stables. Oh, and let’s not forget the tennis court out back, behind the former chapel. All at roughly 100€/night in a 2-bedroom, 40-square-meter apartment, with continental breakfast for four. That’s San Lorenzo a Linari, near San Rocco i Filli, in the heart of Tuscany.
I had been tipped by several artistically-inclined people about Siena and its surroundings. And I confirm. A gem of an old town, perched up on a hill, reddish-brown buildings the color of baked brick erected around and on top of each other in different layers while, beyond the ramparts, a movie-like countryside extends as far as the eye can see. Siena’s Duomo is of white, pale rose and black marble with an inner space like dark blue skies splashed with gold stars, while the floors expose unbelievable stories in intarsia. Siena’s narrow, intricate streets climb and descend in a confusing maze and each neighborhood still honors its own flag, coat of arms and patron saint. And best of all, the amazing and atypical Piazza del Campo, the large sloping amphitheater with tower where traditional horse races among the different contrade are still being carried out today.
For lunch, we ended up at the Bagoga, a place on the via della Galluzzo recommended by the Routard, and which holds a whole array of food-related awards. With good reason. If you want to be surprised by soup served on a plate instead of in a bowl, order the ancient Tuscan specialty of Ribolitta. A wonderful, tasty combination of vegetables and bread that will leave you feeling full. For refreshment, try a local mixed salad, with the best fresh tomatoes you’ve ever tasted on this side of Paradise, combine that with the wild boar in onion-rosemary-and-red-wine sauce, and, if you’ve got guts, top it all with a home-made tiramisu. Or you can savor a gelatto in the Piazza. Ah, the simple joys of life!
Don’t rush it. Allow Siena to really sink in. Try again on a clear evening, for better contrast and blue skies in your pictures. The town is small, but it offers more in the way of authentic Italian life, with its thick history, old University, its crypts, museums and its steep hills not yet completely overflowing with tourists than many a larger, more famous neighbor. You know what I am getting at. We found Florence to be loud, dirty, crowded and overrated, too big to be negotiated on foot with a buggy on the unevenly cobbled streets through pouring rain. No functional public toilets in the parking house, a traffic that would easily make it into Dante’s most sadistic circles of hell, and masses of people around the wide, squeezed-in pieces of architecture. Not to mention the hordes selling every tawdry colorful product made in China/India/Bangladesh/under the sun. Too much oriental bazaar. Choose Siena instead.
We got to witness young men in purple capes singing their warring chants in the terracotta-floored Piazza del Campo, American students sprawled carelessly in the sun and groups of Italian pupils on field trip learning about the specifics of the local Il Palio or the plague which wiped out more than half of the town’s population in the 1300s. For instance, that the local horse racing competition, among the toughest in the world, became official in 1310, when the date was set to August 16th of each year, to celebrate the Assumption on the Virgin. In 1656, the Palio delle Contrade was added, which happens on July 2nd of every year. The Duomo of Siena has elements of Roman, Gothic and Gothic-florentine style and hosts wonderful works by Michelangelo, Donatello, Andrea Bregno, Pisano, Pinturicchio, etc. Luckily, this time of year, there were no entrance queues. The local ceramics are also spectacular.
If you have some time to spare, do visit the countryside. Pedal, or ride your motorbike, if you can. The roads are dangerously narrow, but the softly-oppressing heat of the early afternoon, the acacia fragrance floating like an invisible cloud in the air, the vineyards and hills and small villages and isolated estates that look just like what you have come to expect from Tuscany, really make it worth your while. Remember, you are never far from Chianti or Montepulciano territory. The wines are really good here. Small trattorias in the villages will usually have a house wine that is just delicious with your meal, or let them recommend one.
One appealing destination is the Castello Spaltenna (near Gaiole in Chianti). Take a breath on the sprawling manicured lawns that give way to sloping vineyards and have lunch on the terrace by the pool. You will feel like royalty. Nothing but the wind breezing on the estate. Or have a look inside their classy hand-made, hand-painted ceramics store. You can buy a set of unique dishes or the local wine. Nothing but elegance and style.
Copyright photos: Andreea Sepi.