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Siena, Italia 5 September 2011

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Siena, Tuscany, Italia

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For a moment, I thought that Siena might disappoint. Just a moment. There were more than a few moments of anxiety right at the beginning when I couldn't figure out how to use an Italian pay phone and was afraid I was not going to be able to contact the keeper of our Siena accommodations. Then a kindly lady in an Information office helped, and within minutes – just long enough for a gelato – we were met at the apartment door and shown in. I Rozzi, our apartment for the first night, was cramped and the provisions were scanty, but the location, on the street just behind the Piazza del Campo, couldn't be more central.

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Our first expedition, southeast toward the Basilica di S. Maria, was interrupted by a marching group from the Contrade della Luppa – the men, dressed in wonderfully striped leggings and elaborate coats and hats drumming and waving flags, the women watching, taking pictures, and following along after. Apparently if you are born male into a Senese neighborhood (called a contrade, of which there are 17) you are either a flag waver or a drummer. As they approached the church, flag wavers from the next neighborhood, Valdimontone, came out to wave in friendly protest. All the drumming and waving made quite a spectacle.

We went questing for dinner about eight, early for Italians, down past the covered market in the Piazza di Mercato, where a fiery speaker with a long beard was inciting a sizable crowd about something Ebraica. The passion in his speech was palpable, infectious, and the gathering of people, apparently just regular Italians, erupted into applause when he finished. He may have been talking about food, or politics, or the Palestinian situation, but whatever it was, his message met with approval. Meanwhile, in this plaza just below the city hall and central police station, was being truculently overseen by more than enough very well fed police on their motorcycles and little smart cars if a riot was immanent. By far the most dangerous element of the whole scene were the police.  

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Choosing amongst three ristoranti in the old market square, we chose one with flowers and bright facade, and were served by a young woman with amazingly detailed make-up. The food was good, and we had a bottle of wine and a very good time. The Senese are overwhelmed, from May through October, by hoards of tourists, most of whom have (like us) only an elementary grasp of Italian proprieties – when to drink espresso, how to ask for things, how to behave – and some manage their distaste better than others. Our waitress handled hers hardly at all … but served us unexceptionably. We ate standards, and amongst the four of us we find that we can handily order an antipasto, a primi piatti, a secondi, a contorno, and still have room for a dolci at the end of the meal. Damiana's extensive restaurant experience has endowed her with a knowledge of, among other things, after-dinner digestifs, and while I am happy to ask for a grappa, she bandies with the server over the Amaro of choice, which is unexpected. From Anna at Zio Gigi's in Firenze this brought on a pleasant exchange, but here, Damiana's undeniably knowledgeable request brought only a raised (and extravagantly painted) eyebrow.

The next evening the girls went out in search of the same digestif – Amaro – and received the same raised eyebrow from the male bartender. Apparently, women aren't supposed to digest.

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Siena Monday

On this day, we get to move from our cramped quarters to “the apartamento Fonte Gaia,” whose three windows open out onto the Campo – the view from the window is at the top of this page. The new apartment has the minimal mod cons, full sized fridge, four-burner electric stove, sink, and is fitted with shutters (crucial in the morning when the sun blazes on this side of the Campo), double pane glass, inside shutters. The bowl-like Campo with the far side dominated by the Palazzo Pubblico (city hall) and its signature tower, and any and all noise made in the bowl focuses right on our windows.

Every place is bound to have its good and bad points. We thought this through, and agree that a balcony could make this place better … but the view, the sense of immediacy and access to the town's heart, is profound. No matter what the bad points, this is right where we want to be.

Bad points? Southeast facing, the morning sun is boiling, and the heat it pours into the meter thick masonry walls overwhelms the best efforts of the puny air conditioner all night long. In the morning, the shutters must be kept shut tight and the lights must be on to keep from getting cooked. The Campo sleeps from after 4am when the last drunks stagger home until 5am when the garbage men and sweepers appear to burnish the image and remove the detritus. During this short period, if you open the shutters and windows, you can hear the water trickling in the eponymous fountain. Unless you're an innovative and patient cook, the kitchen is a joke.

But who cares: the Campo is right out the windows.

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Feet firmly on Senese clay, we venture farther out into the city on the hilltop. We have agreed to postpone the art for one more day to let the Uffizi and Accademia sink in fully, and so today is purely for finding our way. Sienna and Damiana get into the contrade immediately, and set themselves the goal of finding all seventeen. Good luck! Even having been here for three or four days in 2001, Rochelle and I find ourselves on new back streets and in new squares; near the end of the visit we agree that at least of half of what we've seen is new.

A good friend and otherwise reliable informant about Italy asked why we were planning four days in Siena. "It's a good day trip," he said. I feel the same way about Firenze myself. The scale and substance of Siena is so comfortable and endearing, I could spend weeks here and still not find everything.

<p>City Hall Torre, left; Duomo, right from San Domenico</p>

City Hall Torre, left; Duomo, right from San Domenico

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Siena's story is of a major city fallen out of the race of major cities at a critical time in its development, just when it had achieved beauty – a story we have come to appreciate in other places, like Bruges. Frozen in time since the 15th Century, it is at once blessed and cursed with its gorgeous renaissance infrastructure. Too many churches to count; narrow twisty streets, some which drop steeply down beneath arches with buildings built above. Somehow, most of the buildings have been brought into the 21st Century.

Still getting acclimated to the rhythm of the town, we are too late for lunch – lunch ends at 2:30 sharp – and so have to put up with some fairly average food from a turistic ristorante just off the Campo. To make up for it, we are careful to choose our dinner, and find a ristorante out along the Via Roma called Gallo Nero – Black Rooster – that professes to specialize in ancient Sinese specialties. Rochelle and I remember a “medieval dinner” put on here; the troubadours have apparently grown up and flown, but the food is crisp, earthy, and completely right for us.

The daily tourist onslaught has mostly died down by the time we finish dinner, and the Sinese are out making their passagiata. Many of the young women are dressed stunningly and made up like film stars. Like everywhere, the young men are schlumpfs. Passing through the UK and again here in Italia, we have seen many, many beautifully turned out women, and perhaps a handful of classy guys.

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