Tuscany road trip day 1- 4: Siena
After spending a few days in San Miniato for the white truffle festival we decided to head south and explore some of the Tuscan medieval towns, on my list for their unique history or wine production and to see the countryside beauty of Tuscany. We did not reserve hotels except for that night in Siena. We’ll stop where and when we want, with some time constraints of course.
We fell head over heels for siena the instant we got there. We dropped our carry-on only bags at the hotel within the walls of the old town, parked the car in one of the parking lots just around the corner from the old town and returned to check into the small but exquisite Residenz d’Epoca Campo Reggio Relais. The six room hotel was the residence of two doctors but the place was getting too large for them so they converted it into a hotel and moved to the top floor where they still live. We had a suite just below the owners with a balcony overlooking the old town of Siena and a view that simply took our breath away. The images speak for themselves.
We settled on the balcony with our coffee taking in the magnificent scene and listening to the bells from the Cathedral next door ringing. The sense and sound of history was surreal and we had a hard time extracting ourselves from there to go and explore the town, but eventually we did.
The boutique hotel is situated right inside the old town within a few minutes walk of Piazza del Campo and the landmarks we wanted to visit. We have gotten used to the Tuscan rhythm by now and went out during the passeggiata when everything is open and people are dressed for the traditional early evening stroll. It was magnificent. Siena is big and beautiful yet has a unique identity about it that you don’t find anywhere else.
The large Piazza del Campo is the site of the famous horse race, the Palio, that takes place in the spring and is one of the most famous events in Tuscany. The Palio is not a touristy affair, it is deeply rooted in local culture and tradition and speaks to who Siena people are. For almost 500 years thousands of locals gather in the piazza to cheer the rider from their contrade (city district) and I understand that things can get get pretty heated over the race. Horses and riders are dressed and decorated with their contrade’s colour and days before the race they parade with pageantry around town. We were not there for the race (July 2 and August 16) but the sense of it is evident everywhere. Walking through the streets of Siena you are aware of the cotrade’s colours and flags displayed as street signs, marking their territory along the ancient streets of Siena. Even the restaurant we had dinner at that night was decorated with painting and sculptures of magnificent horses.
Siena has a lot to offer to lovers of history and is considered one of the best preserved medieval towns in Tuscany. The Piazza di Campo, the Duomo and several cathedral would take days to just begin to explore and we did our best to get a sense of the history of Siena in the time we spent there. We kept extending the stay at the hotel by one more night, then another.
Food as you know is always on my mind and there were a few local specialties on my list to try. First was the pici pasta, made of noodles that have been hand rolled into strings, thicker than spaghetti and tapered at the ends. I was told that pici comes from the Italian word appicciare (to stick) and that this dish has been around this Tuscan area for generations. Apparently there are specific sauces to go with this pasta and I tried two: the cacio e pepe, one of my personal favourites (thanks Gaby), made with pecorino and pasta cooking water, and the pici alle briciole, a sauce made with bread, pecorino and olive oil. Both were delicious.
Siena is also known for its traditional pastries. The main one is panforte, a sticky fruit bread with spices that you would cut into thin slices and enjoy with a coffee or a drink. I bought and tried a few different kinds at the many pastry shops but eventually had to stop. I also tried the ricciarelli, almond and orange peel based cake-biscuit with a hint of cinnamon, made without flour and heavily dusted with powdered sugar. It is very soft, delicate and refined pastry that goes well with a glass of wine or a cup of tea or a tisane. Cantuccio are like mini biscotti, hard and crisp, meant to be dipped apparently not in coffee, but only in Vinsanto or other wines. Cavallucci, meaning horses are half round biscuits made with flour, honey, almond paste, candied orange peel and sugar ground together with the candied orange peel and almond perfuming the pastry. They area harder and more dry than the riccirelli and they too are heavily dusted with powdered sugar. They are called horses not for their shape but because historically they were eaten but people travelling by horse through the area. You are to dip these into a vinsanto (did, delicious).
Apparently there are heated debates revolving around who makes the best of each of these pastries. Some of the bakeries to try would be Nannini with a few locations, or Pasticceria Le Campane located out of the old town, or Pasticceria Buti in town, but really, unless you are a local connoiseur any pastry shop’s version of these pastries would be a delicious experience. Believe me, I tried a few.
Dinner that evening was at Taverna di San Giuseppi, a popular restaurant tucked up the street from Piazza di Campo. They are filled with locals but are clearly used to working with tourists, speak english and help you with your order. Finally I found a restaurant that had vegetables on the menu and I went with an all vegetables dinner. First course was souffle of pecorino from Pienza with fresh truffles that was light as a cloud with delicate yet distinct pecorino flavour. Then grilled artichokes with lemon and oil and a grilled vegetable platter followed by a crisp and wonderfully dressed salad of leafy greens with shaved fennel and orange segments. My husband had a whole butterflied small chicken and for dessert we shared a red-wine-poached-pear with ice cream. We sat next to an American couple travelling in the area and had a lively discussion about food, politics and travel. it was quite fun.
We walked back to the hotel through the now deserted dark narrow streets and settled on the patio with a glass of Vinsanto in which we dipped a small cantucci (like biscotti but smaller). The bells from the the cathedrals were ringing, each in turn, responding to each other in a beautiful harmony. A truly magical moment.
Another restaurant to try for aperitivo, dinner or a glass of champagne is Cava de Noveschi near the Duomo. Don’t be discouraged by the small unassuming entrance, they have a special selection of champagnes and all the food is home made, including the pasta and gnocchi.
Breakfast at the hotel was served in a lovely dining room with a balcony overlooking the old town and we enjoyed a leisurely interlude before continuing to explore the city. We kept extending our stay and loved exploring and enjoying what Siena has to offer. It is definitely a must visit destination if you are in the area.
From here we continue to south Montepulciano and Pienza, then make our way through the beautiful Orcia Valey to Montalcino.