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 ESSAY - SIENA

Siena: Italy's Very Own Magic Kingdom
by
Lorenzo Carcaterra

     The Piazza Del Campo is quiet, the early morning sun slowly lighting the storefronts and medieval palaces that line the fan-shaped plaza. The piazza -- the heart of Siena -- is best known as the location of the Palio, a horse race run twice a year, in July and August, for the glory of the 17 districts or contrade that make up the city. Today the piazza hosts pigeons that perch atop the long-abandoned battlements of the town hall, the piazza's largest structure. Across the square, three women head toward a coffee shop, walking confidently, their dress simple but stylish. A small group of elderly men, each wearing a jacket fitted to form, the creases of their slacks sharp as knife blades, their shoes polished, amble past me, sharing quick-to-spread gossip.
     "If we have a chance to stop and talk with friends, we take it,"
says Nicoletta Landi, one of the city's most celebrated tour guides, as both of us raise our faces to the warming sun. "To an Italian, gossip is second only to religion in order of importance. The better we gossip, the longer we talk and the more coffee we drink.:
     The people of Siena -- a city founded by the Roman emperor Augustus -- are warm and friendly, quick to answer a stranger's question.
     Otherwise, they calmly go about their business, stopping to chat with friends as if they were the only ones standing in the center of the ancient streets. They speak in low voices in a language many believe is the purest form of Italian.
     Of all the Italian cities I've visited, with the exception of Naples, I've yet to find one as fiercely proud and independent as Siena.
     Its people disdain the modern, finding comfort in the ways of the time-honored past. Most of its 50,000 citizens will readily tell you of the economic power the city enjoyed between the 12th and 14th centuries.
     Of the decision made in 1287 to ally with Florence, their northern rival, and to create a ruling body called the Council of the Nine. Of how the glory years lasted until 1348, when the Black Death took three-quarters of the city's population before its venomous dust dissipated. And of the final blow that came in April 1555, when Siena was starved into surrendering to a Spanish and Florentine force led by Gian Giacomo dei Medici of Florence. The bitterness over that centuries-old treachery still carries with it an aftertaste.
     Today, Siena is one of the rare beauties of Europe, a medieval city that stubbornly exists within the confines of a modern world. Most homes display one of 17 flags, each distinguished by a different color and animal design and signifying one of Siena's 17 distinct districts. "Each district is actually a small city hidden inside a larger one," says Landi. "And if a young woman from one district falls in love with a young man from another district, then the families certainly have something to say about it."
     "But what if you fall in love with someone from another city?" I ask..
     "Depends on the city," she says with a wide smile. "Better the young man be from Rome than from Florence."
     "Yet Florence doesn't seem to feel that way toward Siena," I counter..
     "They were the victors," she replied. "Why should they carry hard feelings?"
     "All this because of what happened back in 1666?" I ask, leading the way out of the piazza.
     "A city should retain its history," Landi replies. "The good and the bad."
     Siena is built for walking. I've been here for three days, along with my wife and son, trying to keep pace with Landi as she leads us through the high ground and low archways of the circular city, the Campo always a short distance away. None of Siena's streets, many with dancing fountains, are level, and the city sprawls on a series of hills, surrounded by the luscious vistas of the Tuscan countryside. Most of the predominantly Gothic homes and buildings that line the narrow streets bear the reddish brown hues known as burnt Siena. Each dwelling's exterior must be maintained in colors regulated by the city -- for instance, shutters may only be painted grey, green, or Terra di Siena red; facades must be ocher, pink, brick red, or marble white. Any deviation requires government permission. I found only one such renegade, painted a garish yellow in jolting contrast to the other elegantly kept residences. While I stopped to stare at it, a middle-aged man stepped alongside me and shook his head with disappointment.
     "You will forget it tomorrow," he says. "I have to pass it every day to and from work. I can never forget it. Some people just need to be different."
     Siena's front doors of rich, thick wood freshly painted or sanded are kept polished enough to see a reflection clearly. "How someone decorates the inside of a home is her decision," Landi tells me, standing in front of a two-story brick house off the Via di Cittą. "But what's on the outside reflects the city. The front door is the first thing a guest sees. It must convey pride and care, because if you put all that effort into a door, imagine how special the inside of the house must be."
     We walk past the Monet dei Paschi, the oldest bank in Europe, first established in 1472. Long open to the public, after the September 11 attacks in the U.S. the bank began limiting access only to customers.
     "There are people in Spain who will tell you they have the oldest bank,"
     Gabriele Cioffoletti, the bartender at Rome's Regina Hotel Baglioni since 1964 and a frequent visitor to Siena, had told me several days earlier.
     "But they don't have the documents to prove it. Until they produce those, Siena's bank remains the oldest."

     Siena is one of the richest cities in Italy. Restaurants are crowded year-round and the shops are filled with wonders (often at bargain prices) -- from oak barrel-aged wine to fine silverware and furniture to exotic meats and cheeses. I think the last person to litter in Siena was beheaded in 1374. Laws here are followed to the letter. Scooters are parked according to specific times and places. Tour buses do park where the law dictates. There's virtually no crime and, other than traffic and crowd control, the police seem to have little to do.
     "In Siena a tour guide is always on call," says Landi. "Even in the middle of the night. But a policeman can go an entire day without being asked a question or having to answer a phone call. There are times when I wonder why we even have police at all."
     The population is among Italy's best educated, and a first-rate medical school draws students worldwide. "It's nice to have so many young people among us in Siena," says Landi as we walk down a steep hill toward the Via delle Campane, "even though most of believe life doesn't really begin until 35 or 40. But, as with everything else, there's a price to pay for the gift of youth. We now have a McDonald's inside the city walls.
     Some call it progress. We haven't come up with a name for it yet."
     My 17-year-old son Nick has joined us, and we enter Basilica Cateriniana di San Domenico, built in 1226. In the center of an exquisite chapel is the mummified head of St. Catherine of Siena, one of the patron saints of the city and of all Europe (a typical unschooled young woman of medieval times, she achieved renown by persuading the pope, in exile in Avignon, to return to Rome). In the Middle Ages pilgrims required visual proof that a saint actually existed, so religious relics got wide exposure.
     Consequently, after St. Catherine died at 33 in 1380, her torso stayed in Rome, one foot went to Avignon, the other to Venice, while her head and a finger came to Siena.
     Nick and I light a candle, and kneel before the saint's head.
     "Nice way to treat a saint," he says, his voice dripping with teenage sarcasm. "chop her up and ship her off to anybody who doesn't believe she ever lived."
     "It's just the way they did things back then," I whisper.
     "At least we know this is really her head, as gross as that may be," he says. "But how do the people in Venice and France know those are really her feet?"
     "Whose else would they be?"
     "Could be anybody's," he says.
     "We'll talk about it at dinner," I say.
     That night, we eat at the Grotta di S. Caterina, considered by the locals to be Siena's finest restaurant. There, we have the five-course special, designed by chef Pierino Fagnani and served with silent pride by his assistant, Libero Terosi. As with all restaurants in Siena, the prices are reasonable and the food the perfect offering of regional specialties.
     If you're looking for low-calorie, low-fat fare or fresh fish, Siena will disappoint. Instead, expect an appetizer of fresh prosciutto, salami, and mortadella, along with a mixed green salad or a platter of artichokes and assorted sliced cheeses. A typical second course: pasta cooked in a wild boar or wild rabbit sauce, each heavy and hearty. The best main dish is a grilled assortment of local meats -- steak, boar, pig, rabbit, and calf. And wine? The red Brunello is hard to resist, and the locals aren't shy about drinking it.
     Siena's waiters work behind a benign shield of indifference. They stand back, content to allow a visitor the time to navigate a menu written only in Italian. Then, with the timing of a great performer, they move to the table and turn up the charm, showing off their knowledge of wine and cuisine. Only after the meal and wine are ordered does the waiter offer a grateful bow and a warm smile.
     "You have to accept the people of Siena as they are," my cousin Giancarlo Lo Manto tells me by phone from his home in Florence. "They pride themselves on being unique. Sometimes, pride mixed with the desire to do a good job leaves little room for humor.

     On my last night in Siena I go for a walk while my wife and son watch an episode of Columbo in Italian back at the hotel. The narrow streets and steep steps are silent and empty; the towers that dominate the landscape cast wide shadows against the glare of the street lights and the glow of a full moon. The stores are shuttered and the restaurants are taking their final orders. In the distance, a young couple walks hand in hand, the woman's head leaning against the man's shoulder, the heels of their shoes clicking against the red bricks and stones that had once been walked on by kings and trampled over by conquerors. I move past the quiet Museo dell'Opera del Duomo and stop in front of an outdoor café where an elderly man rests chairs atop tables, eager for the long day to end.
     "You have time for one more customer?" I ask him.
     "Depends," he says with a slight shrug. "Does that customer want food or drink?"
     "A Fernet-Branca," I say. "With ice."
     "I'll make two," he says, disappearing into the dark bar. "It's been a busy night."
     We sit facing a dark street, the lights from the towers and churches clouded in mist. "It's so quiet here," I say. "It's like we're the only two people in the entire city."
     "That would be true in other places," he says. "But not in Siena.
     Here we are never alone, no matter how quiet, no matter how still. We have kept our past and our history alive. It's all around us, there for us to touch, to see, to feel."
     I smile, finish my drink, and stand to pay.
     "There's not charge," the man says as I get ready to leave. "Not for the drink and not for the history that surrounds you. I hope you enjoy them both."
     I nod, thank him, and walk away. On that quiet night, Siena is a city at peace, both with itself and with its history. A place neither man nor time could ever damage. Italy's very own magic kingdom.

WINE HEAVEN - MINUTES AWAY

     I sit at a small wood table, right hand resting on the base of a large glass of red wine, and stare out at the stunning farmland spread below, flowing across the bay window like a glittering ocean of tilled land and trimmed greens. I am at a back table at the Enoteca Osteria Osticcio, owned by Signor and Signora Tullio and Francesca Scrivani. They are in a small booth to my left, searching out the perfect red wine to complement the wide platter of sausage spread, prosciutto, bruschetta, and thick slices of aged parmigiano reggiano cheese topped with a splash of equally aged balsamic vinegar they had prepared as a sampler.
     An osteria is one of the best and most affordable places to enjoy the food and drink of any region in northern and central Italy. The Osticcio is a 30-minute drive south of Siena, in the very heart of Montalcino, where many believe the finest read wines in the world, the Brunellos, are grown and bottled. The front end of the Osticcio is a wine shop, smelling of fresh cut wood and old wine barrels, shelves stocked with the latest wines. you can while away an entire afternoon, savoring the food and different wines -- all for about $15 per person. Or you can shop while you eat.
     I leave the table and scan the rows of Brunello (a case runs $250 and up); the variety of balsamic vinegars (most are under $25 and aged as much as 50 years); and the tall, thick bottles of olive oils that come in three different blends (all $19 a bottle). I turn toward Tullio, smiling and hovering at my shoulder.
"I'd get some wine," I say, "and my wife loves the vinegar and the olive oil, but it would be a nightmare getting it to the airport and then home."
     Tullio's smile widens and he rests a hand on my shoulder.
     "We don't have a movie theater or a video store in our town," he replies. "we don't have many things you find in a big city like Siena or Florence. But we know how to take care of our wine. And we know how to get it to your home, safe and ready for you to drink. The vinegar and the oil, too."
     "How?" I ask.
     "FedEx will have it on your porch within a week. I also have a web page. I love for you to visit us every year, but if you can't, you can order my wine anytime you want and have it sent anywhere you want. While we cling to tradition, we also use modern technology."
     "Can I mix and match different wines in a case? I ask.
     "You can do or I'll do it for you," Tullio says. "Work from the wine on the shelves and the ones I have in the basement. If you're not in a rush, I'll take a few days and make sure the blends complement one another."
     "I leave tomorrow," I say.
     "That's not a problem either, my American friend," Tullio replies.
     "I have e-mail, too."


LORENZO'S PICKS - A SAMPLING OF TUSCAN LIVING

* The Piazza del Campo Representatives from ten of Siena's 17 districts compete here in the Palio, a classic bareback horse race held annually on July 2 and August 16. The riders circle a track of ancient paving stones covered with hard-packed dirt three times -- about half a mile -- to determine which district takes the palio, a silk banner. year-round, the piazza is the gathering place in Siena. If you happen to be traveling with a teenager as I was, this is the one spot where he or she will turn off the Walkman and pay attention.

* The Duomo This impressive cathedral has distinctive black and white marble stripes on its facade and, as any Sienese will tell you, took over 200 years to build. Under the rose window is a bust of Chris; surrounding it on the upper walls are the busts of 172 popes and 36 Christian emperors.

* Antica Trattoria Botteganova This is one of the best osterias in Siena.
In this warm, welcoming, cozy little place you can drink Tuscan wines and sample the area's cheeses and meats. it offers among the finest lunches (averaging about $50 per person) in town. No one rushes you and the hosts are always eager to answer questions (and sell you more wine).

* Palazzo Pubblico Head straight to the upper floor. In the Sala del Mappamondo, you'll find two great frescoes, one by Simone Martini and then, in the Sala della Pace, you'll discover the frescoes of Ambrogio Lorenzetti. Pained in 1338, they depict the images of a just government on one end and an unjust government on the other -- a political statement made through great art.

* Via di Cittą This narrow, quintessentially Sienese street is lined with well-maintained homes brightly painted with the colors of the city and the district. Mostly stone, three-story buildings, they feature colorful shutters, thick oak doors, and pots of geraniums in entryways and on window sills. It's as if time has halted its march and called it a day.

* The Steps of Siena Venture up and down the city's many steep and winding steps. All converge at the Campo in the center of town. One some you encounter stone buildings that have withstood the onslaught of battle.
Others lead you into the financial district or toward shops and restaurants. Expect to run a bit of an obstacle course -- the steps are favorite perches for hand-holding couples and coffee-sipping locals.

* San Gimignano Trust me, shoppers will love the bounty of this most beguiling of ancient central Italian towns, 24 miles northwest of Siena.
The streets are crammed with shops that sell everything from hand-carved table lamps (we bought three), Siena dishes and cutlery, and vases that seemed centuries old but had been finished that very day. The place is a modern mall inside the walls of a medieval city.

This article originally appeared in the September 2003 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC TRAVELER magazine

 


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