JJ: We want to Talk about Siena, a medieval marvel full of magical memories. David will do most of the chat as, for this recent trip, he was there. (I was tending garden – at home.)
DAVID: If you were traveling to Italy, you would undoubtedly hit her most famous cities – Rome, Florence, Venice – but you might not even think of visiting Siena. That would be a grande mistake. Molto grande. Siena is an ancient city surrounded by massive walls, completely closed to traffic, immensely walkable, charming and captivating. In actual fact, UNESCO has named Siena a World Heritage Site. So, take this traveler’s advice; don’t pass it by. Like the other hill towns of Tuscany, this one was first settled back in 900 BC and it has a rich history filled with enough melodrama to make an exciting background for a TV miniseries. I spent my three days at the Grand Hotel Continental, the only 5-star albergho within the city walls. It started its life as a wedding gift from Pope Alexander V11 to his niece.
The hotel is still a palace, luxurious with its splendid paintings, frescoes, and silver-framed mirrors. And my accommodations were fit for royalty, with 20+ foot ceilings, dramatic murals on the wall, and an enormous terrace overlooking this fascinating city.
I sought out the well-remembered sights of earlier visits; the Duomo and the Piazza del Campo. The Cathedral was built in the 12th century, its façade completed in 1380, and it is an outstanding example of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. The magnificent octagonal pulpit supported by lordly lions is worth a long exploration. The Campo is enormous with stone seating leading down to the arena where the Palio, a world-famous horse race is held twice each year.
JACKIE: My main memory: In the still of the evening, from our window, we were awestruck hearing a low rat-a-tat-tat from a respectful drummer. He was guiding a mystical and solemn parade, leading the Palio’s winning horse to the banquet hall where the celebration dinner was held with the horse (at the table), as guest of honor. Traditions, culture….
DAVID: Speaking of dinner, a highlight was the late Gianni Brunelli’s Osteria le Logge (the lodges). Terrific Tuscan fare. The cooking starts early in the morning with a painstaking search of the local markets and shops for the best possible products, freshest veggies, and best cuts of meat. These ingredients are transformed into traditional dishes of quality and distinction, some with an innovative twist. I had the pleasure of chatting with Laura Brunelli, widow of Gianni, who now manages the Osteria with Mirco Vigni and Agostino La Sorte, and maintains the original philosophy of lighter, healthier cuisine using organic products as much as possible. My selection from Chef Nico Atrigna included steamed carciofi (artichokes) on a pool of mandarine orange and black olives (fantastic combo), then ravioli zucca (pumpkin) and butter (the best I’ve ever had) and guancia di manzo (beef cheek) cooked for hours and delicious, accompanied by Tuscan fagioli (white beans) in olive oil. The wines (marvelous) came from the family’s own vineyards in Montalcino. Go! Mangia!! Enjoy!!!
Strolling back to the very Grand Hotel Continental I paused at the Piazza del Campo and imagined the ghosts of the Palio, that furious, sometimes violent race of horses around the confined space, at times dangerously close to the spectators. I could almost feel the fear, hear the raucous cheers. Then for me – a buono notte and my own cheers for the sumptuous interior of the Grand Hotel and the peaceful dreams in my room fit for the niece of a Pope.
JACKIE: Ain’t life (and you) grand, but then that’s Siena!