Press "Enter" to skip to content

Italy, Part 2: Siena

Siena is one of my favorite places that we visited on our trip this spring. I first learned about Siena as a child reading Marguerite Henry’s Gaudenzia, Pride of the Palio, about a boy and his horse who enter the famous horse race around the Piazza del Campo in Siena. Our first evening there, enjoying a drink and some pizza and watching the crowd, was amazing for me. I was trying to picture the race; I do know that they put down dirt, which is good because the Campo is brick and stone and would otherwise be dangerously slippery. But the Campo is uneven in its overall terrain - high on the one side, sloping at different angles towards the lower end. The turns are very tight in two cases. I don’t think I would actually enjoy watching one of those races, but it was great fun imagining them.

Our first dinner in Siena was at a new restaurant. We weren’t sure what to think - they were having a special dinner, a wine pairing or something, and they were also trying to get a Michelin star. But we made the reservation and then went back to our apartment for a bit. We contacted our host and asked him about the restaurant, but it was new to him as well. He did know the owners, friends of his, who also own a wine bar in Siena, so we decided to try it and let him know what we thought. It turned out to be wonderful. The wines, no surprise given the wine shop connection, were excellent. The food was also quite good and we had a lovely evening. One memorable moment was when we ordered a bottle that wasn’t in the restaurant and our waitress had to run out in the very cold night, without a coat, to pick it up from the wine bar. What service!

Siena is a Medieval city, the old part at least, made up of brick and stone buildings, with narrow streets and alleys. Cars are limited and mostly people walk inside the old city. In general, cars in Italy are very small, and they have to be in these older places. On our second day Dana and I set out to explore using the Rick Steve’s guided walk from our tour book, which was a lot of fun; poor Van decided to do laundry that day and had to use the laundromat as we did not have a washing machine in the apartment. He did end up joining us later in the day as we toured the cathedral. Our tour took us back to the Campo and then up a few different streets; Siena is built on several hilltops and each one is marked. The best way I could imagine what this must have looked like before there was a town, was the steep hillsides back home, tamed and paved over with tall houses all around. It is an amazing feat. I had my first gelato in Siena, as we were walking along that day; it wasn’t warm, but that didn’t matter. While we were walking around I noticed another aspect of Siena - it’s made up of lots of small streets and alleys and some of them seem a bit scary, like you might find yourself in trouble, but then you would walk down that alley and there, hidden from view until you were about on top of it, would be a store or a restaurant or a gelateria.

We walked all over that day, which started out beautiful, if chilly, but ended in rain. A lot of our days in Italy were rainy, though none so wet we didn’t get outside and explore anyway (what else could we do?). We walked more of the tour, then I wanted to see the head of St. Catherine of Siena, so we walked over to the Dominican church where that is located (her body is in Rome - some agreement between the two cities to share her remains). We also visited a chapel next to her house but the house itself was too busy and it was too wet to wait outside, so we hiked back up to the cathedral where we visited the museum there. We also visited the lower levels of the cathedral, though the baptismal area was under renovation and so we didn’t get to see much in that part of the church.

Our dinner that night was something of a disappointment. We had passed by the restaurant a time or two in our walk about town. We looked them up and saw that they had been on the “recommended” list by Michelin, though they weren’t currently on it. We decided to give them a try anyway. Well, it started out okay, we had nice service as we sat down and ordered, but from there it fell apart. We had good food, I will say that, but the service was terrible after that. There were a lot of wait staff just standing around and not checking on the tables, so we had to fill our own wine glasses (which sound silly, but if you’re trying to get a Michelin star or even get recommended, it’s these little things that count). Ultimately, we asked to see the dessert menu and, for whatever reason, it was never brought to us. We ended up paying and leaving and saving our money for gelato on the walk home.

Our last full day in Siena we spent with friends. Van’s former intern, Lawrence, picked us up that morning and drove us out to see the vineyards and winery where he works. It is incredibly beautiful. We also saw the spot where, when putting in a new vineyard, they had found Etruscan ruins; there’s a small patch in the middle of the vines with a plaque for this. We had parked on a hill above the vineyard, which is a public area to learn about the Etruscan find and on the little fence that denotes where to park we found a red bra hanging there; clearly the site is not just for viewing the site! After the vineyard tour we were treated to a winery tour and a tasting of all of the wines Lawrence makes; what a treat. It was quite a few wines and we had lunch to get to with the rest of Lawrence’s family after, so the spit buckets were put to good use that day.

Lawrence and his wife live just down the hill from the winery and they, along with their young son, own a small bed and breakfast. We had a wonderful lunch with them at their favorite restaurant. I ordered and ate too much, but it was all delicious. After lunch we went back to their house to relax, have coffee and visit; I was fully sated with food and wine and their cat and I fell asleep in the easy chair. Our visit ended with Lawrence dropping us off at one of the escalators that has been constructed to bring pedestrians from the bottom in the new city up to the old city. The escalators, mostly inside, brought us out at the university, and from there we walked back down to our apartment.

Lunch and dinner hours in Italy are quite different than what we are used to at home. Lunch is typically from 1:00 PM to 3:00 PM; you don’t want to arrive any later than 2:30 PM and even that is pushing it. So you end up finishing lunch somewhere between 3:00 PM and 4:00 PM, depending on when you started. Thus, dinner hours don’t start until 7:30 PM - restaurants generally don’t open until then. We made most of our reservations for 7:30 PM and we were always on time - and almost always the first ones in the restaurant. This often had us wondering if we had chosen poorly as there were no other diners, but by 8:00 or 8:30 PM the places were usually full.

I tell you this because you would think that after our big lunch that we would skip dinner, but by 8:00 PM or so we found we were hungry, so we headed off to walk around Siena and see what we could find to eat. It was Sunday and this limited our choices - we tried to call a few places to see if we could get in, but we were too late for this. We almost ended up at one of the emptier tourist places on the Campo, but we decided to walk around one more time and lucked into a small place that offered to feed us as long as we were quick about eating. We complied; the food was decent, the wine in a carafe was fine and we met a nice couple at the table next door who were on a whirlwind trip around Italy. It wasn’t our best meal, nor our worst, but it was food and we were hungry by then.

Be First to Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *