Perhaps less well-known and certainly less visited than its neighbouring city Florence, Siena was founded in antiquity by the two sons of Remus (whose brother, Romulus, founded Rome). I recently spent two glorious weeks there to brush up on my rather non-existent Italian skills. The post below is a condensation of what I consider to be the highlights – arty and foody – of my time in this beautiful and bountiful city. I hope you enjoy!
The Duomo – Vasari was generous in his praise when he described the decorated pavement of the interior as “most beautiful…grand and magnificent”; so it comes on good authority that Siena’s Duomo rates pretty high in the must-visit-Cathedrals-of-Italy list. After admiring the ornate gothic facade, prepare to marvel at works by Bernini, Donatello and Nicola Pisano. Make sure you don’t miss the Piccolimini library, painted partly by a young Raphael with his teacher Pinturricchio.
Lunch – Il Gallo Parlante, Via Casata di Sopra
This soon became an established lunchtime favourite during my stay in Siena. A glass of rather good house wine will set you back just €2, and the menu changes daily. Expect to find a party of Italians eating a huge shared bowl of either ribollita or papa al pomodoro outside – neither of these two dishes, local to Tuscany, are to be missed.
The Baptistery – Stroll around here for a game of spotting bible stories. The font, realised by the main sculptors of the time (these including the choice selection of Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and Ghiberti; not bad really), stands proud and beautiful in the centre.
The Crypt – This is one of Siena’s hidden gems; if you go in the later afternoon you may pretty much have the place to yourself. The 13th- century fresco cycle, heartbreakingly rendered by none other than Duccio, depicts a range of scenes from the New Testament. These would originally have been accompanied by a parallel set from the Old Testament, but the loss of these in no way detracts from the breathtaking potency of what remains. The tender humanity of Giotto is already present. In the Lamentation the faces of Mary and Jesus seem to morph into one, yet it is clear that he is not with her, try as she might to desperately search for life within his cold, stiff body. The others, crowded around the slab, appeal to the limp figure, total disbelief at what they can see. They have not yet comprehended the gravity of the situation – they are still imploring, still begging him to get up. And suddenly it seems that Mary understands. She stares, static against the frenzy of activity around here. Mary and Jesus are united by a halo of terrible solemnity. The viewer can only watch, and maybe weep.
Aperitif – Diacceto’s, Via Diacceto
In need of a drink? Head over to Diacceto’s for an Aperol Spritz, a steal at only €3. According to your willingness to flirt with the owner, an abundant range of snacks will also be served. If he takes a particular shine to you, the delightful porchetta crostini will soon be wheeled out. Relax here and take in the surroundings with all the locals as they come here for an after-work drink.
Dinner – La Taverna del Capitano, via del Capitano, 6/8
The proximity to Siena’s main square may set alarm bells ringing, but the dulcet tones of Italian floating out of this place will soon set even the most adventurous of diners at their ease. Simply ask for what they recommend here – my original order was rebuffed, and I was instead strongly advised to sample ‘pici cacio e pepe’ as my primi. It certainly did not disappoint. A Sienese dish made out of only pici (a thickish type of spaghetti), the finest pecorino, olive, pepper and salt it was quite simply one of the most delicious dishes I have ever had during my extensive culinary adventures of Italy. This was Italian cooking at its best – humble ingredients of the highest quality combined in perfectly balanced proportion. It was a happy, but rather full, stomach that left the restaurant a few hours later.
Museo dell’opera del Duomo – Situated in the nave of what was intended to be Siena’s new and upgraded version of their current Cathedral, the location is a grim reminder of just how devastating the plague was for the city. Inside, the paintings testify to a city that literally halted in progress after the Black Death in the 14th century. But the art of the Sienese school has plenty of artistic merit in its own right, and the museum gives total validity to this in the masterpieces displayed.
Lunch – Gino Cacino, Piazza del Mercato, 51
This tiny deli, tucked away in the beautiful square of Piazza del Mercato, serves panini such as have never been served before. I had previously taken an attitude of mild complacency towards sandwiches – useful for a quick lunchtime bite, but generally underwhelming compared to the rest of what Italy has to offer. But goods offered here changed my mind completely about this. Hyperbole can only do the panini injustice so I will do is urge you to go – and to try either the ‘porchetta arosto crema di senape al miele’acacia’ or, and this sandwich must be the food of the Gods as the name indeed suggests, ‘elisir di miale e pecorino caldo’. If you ask for the staff favourite, they will without a doubt recommend this, with beaming smiles and half-eaten panino in hand.
And finally, if you are in the neighbourhood of Siena, certainly consider taking the short train to Arezzo to make a pilgrimage to Piero della Francesca’s fresco cycle of ‘The Legend of the True Cross’. Unmissable art.