It’s a glorious morning, cool and bright, and here I am heading south to Siena on a SITA bus at ten past nine. Tomorrow I leave for Venice, so I’m determined to make the most of my final day by spending it in this quintessential Tuscan town.
The ride is short and uneventful and when we disembark at Piazza Antonio Gramsci, I follow the wisdom of the crowd through the narrow streets of the city, assuming the destination for most is “Il Campo,” the main public square.
It is, and I enter through a bottleneck at its northwest corner. From here, everyone is pausing to take pictures and the pedestrian traffic has come to a standstill. From my position, sandwiched between two buildings, looking in, I’m struck not by the harmony of the architecture, or the grandeur of the Palazzo Pubblico with its sharply cut battlements and soaring bell tower, but on a more elemental level by geography itself.
Maps, even those with well-intentioned contour lines, can do little more than suggest elevation in a two-dimensional space. There is no substitute for seeing a place in person, and for feeling the swell of land beneath your feet. I’ve seen photographs of this square, of course, mainly aerial views that highlight its unique fan shape, with spokes of grey stone contrasted against brick, converging at a single point in front of the town hall. But while the view from above is remarkable, it’s also deceptive. In person, the square slants dramatically forward, like a flattened funnel, and I imagine that water in a rainstorm must converge at the bottom as it would in a giant drain. Not that I’m hoping for rain, of course!
This is the site of the famous Palio, a horse race held twice every summer in which riders on bareback careen around the piazza, its pavement softened by dirt for the occasion. The slope lends the whole affair an even more treacherous air.
I follow the route along the perimeter of the square and stop at the base of the Palazzo Pubblico. According to my guidebook, the building is best known for its 14th century frescoes depicting “The Allegories of Good and Bad Government.” That’s a subject I know something about, so I decide to take a peek, stopping first to capture a vertical view of the bell tower framed by the walls of the courtyard.
When I find the room at last, I think, ironically, that looks much like a secular version of “The Last Judgment.” On one wall a ruler presides over an orderly society, flanked by female figures representing virtues such as temperance, prudence, and peace. On another, a horned figure with pointed teeth embodies Tyranny. He is surrounded by counterparts in vice, including cruelty, treason, and war. A bound figure lies helpless at his feet, while the scales of justice hang cut above his head. It’s surely effective, but not exactly subtle.
Fond as I am of panoramic views, I climb the Torre del Mangia next. From the top, I look down upon a lively crowd, some seated in neat rows at café tables, others lounging in the square. I gaze at curving brown streets that remind me of the Burnt Siena crayons I knew as a girl, all the way out to a sea of rolling hills dotted by small churches and convents.
By the time I reach the ground again it’s time to break for lunch. In a stroke of genius, I settle on “Ristorante La Campane,” where my seat on the patio allows me to enjoy the passing scene of shoppers below. I order a chicken and avocado terrine to start, which I later decide has more shape than flavor, and then a plate of ravioli stuffed with pear and cheese, topped with melted pecorino and cracked black pepper. In every mouthful, this is perfection itself. I rake my memory trying to remember if I’ve ever had a better pasta, and come up empty. This is it.
Unfortunately, I reach my epiphany just as a street musician approaches with a violin in tow. Her efforts are clumsy and cruel to the ear. While I dine on such a dish, it is interesting that I should be subjected to such noise. It is an assault on the senses, from both extremes on the continuum.
Later, she comes onto the terrace and moves from table to table, begging for tips. Normally sympathetic to such gestures, I turn away and notice that she has been refused by all. Slyly, I wonder if the real intent was for us to pay her to stop.
I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering aimlessly through hilly streets, up to the Duomo and down to the convent of San Francesco. Along the way, I enjoy slow scenes of Italian life — the color of laundry hanging out of windows, of flower boxes perched on windowsills, and of bicycles leaning against archways and alleys. For a snack, I forgo the typical gelato in favor of local delicacies, including a variation on fruitcake known as panforte, and a chewy almond cookie called ricciarelli.
When I claim a spot in the Campo to rest my feet and eat the pastries in my bag, I’m startled by the feel of something wet on back of my head. I look to the birds circling above, certain I’ve been their victim. But a woman nearby points to an old man instead and makes a gesture to suggest that he is crazy. He has a water pistol in hand and he is laughing as he uses it to chase pigeons around the square. Perhaps she’s right, but on a lazy summer day such as this, I envy the idea and its execution.
By early evening, my time in Siena has come to an end. I take the SITA bus back to Florence and the Hotel Davanzati, where I find that a light rain has once again descended. Not to be undone, I revisit “La Bussola” for another round of pizza, and then make one final turn through the streets on foot, stopping by Piazza del Duomo, where the baptistery is beautifully lit from within. From there I head south towards the Ponte Vecchio, which is lonely and silent, and finally to the Mercato Nuovo to place a coin in the mouth of Il Porcellino, and to rub his well-worn snout. As in Rome at the Trevi Fountain, tradition holds that this will ensure my return to the city someday.
I wonder when that will be.