ROBINSON’S GRAND TOUR: TWELFTH DAY
FLORENCE TO SIENA (AND BACK)
TUESDAY 30 MARCH
If I could pinpoint the day on which I realised that my Grand Tour was more than just a Good Idea, the day on which it finally occurred to me that nothing was ever going to be quite the same again, then Tuesday 30 March 2010 was it. Nothing could have prepared me for it, and I hope that nothing will ever induce me to forget it.
Today I reached my Grand Tour’s furthest point from home. Today I visited Siena.
In my original plan for the Grand Tour, I hadn’t intended to visit Siena at all. Today was meant to be the day I spent tasting Rome. My friend Sue, though, had suggested to me that Rome - love it or hate it - deserved more than a mere afternoon of exploration. She recommended Siena instead, partly because it was much closer to Florence but mainly, I suspect, because she’d been to Siena herself and was curious to know if my reactions to it would be the same as hers.
My European rail pass entitled me to 10 days’ train travel and I’d already planned for all ten of them. So I travelled to Siena from Florence by bus, which was quite an experience in itself. Florence’s cavernous bus station hides within the bowels of a nondescript office block and is extraordinarily difficult to find. It also serves the worst coffee I tasted on the entire Tour.
But the bus was worth waiting for. It was one of those flash double-decker jobs you sometimes see cruising lusciously along motorways, which is precisely what it did now. I sat upstairs next to an impeccably-dressed and startlingly beautiful middle-aged lady called Elissa who, after the usual pleasantries about my Grand Tour (and her appointment with her ex-husband in Rome later that day), decided that, in order to optimise my appreciation of Siena, I should really learn a little Italian.
It was a complete disaster. I had been in Italy almost a week and had managed to get by (more or less) with Buon giorno and Grazie, filling in the blanks with sign language and relying on the colourful high-school English of the host nation, as you do.
Elissa did her best. She’d point to some feature of the lovely Tuscan countryside we were passing through, and - in excellent, university-level English - would painstakingly translate her words into Italian for me.
She was wasting her time. I don’t remember a single word she taught me. If nothing else, that bus journey proved to me, once and for ever, that any pretensions I have to be ‘good at languages‘ are entirely spurious. I’m not. When I disembarked in Siena, I even said Goodbye to her in English. The coldly blank look on her face told me how obviously disappointed she was.
If she’d been maintaining a Stereotype Confirmation List like mine, she would have ticked the box marked The English only speak English.
As had become my habit, I made straight for the Tourist Office in Siena; they always have free street maps. Then I sat outside a trattoria on Il Campo and tried to take it all in.
Il Campo is a lovely, big semi-circular space, the civic equivalent of the Duomo which sits on the hilltop above it (like the Market Place compares to the Cathedral in Durham City). Coloured cobbles divide the space into nine segments, like cake slices, representing the nine ancient guilds of Siena.
Perhaps most famously, though, Il Campo is the setting for one of the oldest - and certainly one of the most ludicrous - horse races in the world; the Palio. Twice a year, in July and again in August, Il Campo is thronged with spectators as costumed trumpeters and liveried banner-bearing marchers parade around the square as a prelude to the event itself.
And then a dozen or so horses are jockey-ridden at breakneck speed around the piazza, each horse and each jockey representing an ancient guild of the city. This is no role-playing spectacle put on for the tourists. The crowd in the square - and, I’m told, those watching at home on tv - go berserk. The noise increases with every swerve and fall, of which there are many.
There are several videos of the Palio on YouTube. If you watch one of them you’ll see how palpably passionate the event is. And also, to my Anglo-Saxon eyes at least, how potentially harmful it is, too; to both riders (who can look out for themselves) and to horses (who can’t).
But maybe I’m being a little too unItalian about it all. It’s not as brutal or as gung-ho as bullfighting, when all’s said and done. When I visited Seville a couple of years ago, I felt deeply uneasy about the city’s bullfighting reputation (which even many Spaniards baulk at) but decided, like the mercenary tourist I obviously am, that even ritual human sacrifice thrice daily at the foot of the Giralda would not detract from the beauty of the city.
As for Seville, so for Siena. I had, in fact, already decided that I could forgive her anything. Anything at all.
In any case, my thoughts that morning were wandering elsewhere as I sat with my coffee on Il Campo, looking around me and upward to the top of the cathedral’s campanile, visible on the hill above the rooftops.
I had this stupendous city to explore. I quickly dispensed with the map. After all, I had no particular destination to make for except the Duomo and I realised quickly that all I needed to do was take any turning that led uphill. Sooner or later, I was bound to find myself gazing at it on level ground.
As I began my wandering walk up from Il Campo to the Duomo, something very odd indeed started to happen, though. I fell into a kind of daydream. Nothing I looked at seemed out of place. Everything seemed to be exactly where it belonged; exactly where I would have put it had I had a hand in the city’s layout. It was almost as if I knew what ought to be round the next unknown corner - and there it was. A small square, a statue, a flower bed, a coffee-shop.
With each narrow street I walked up, with each corner I turned, the reverie became more intense. I seriously wondered whether someone had slipped something into my coffee. Siena seemed to be monumental urban perfection of a kind I had never seen before.
When I reached the hilltop piazza, I sat on a stone bench and looked at the Duomo and the campanile for a while in a kind of daze.
Slowly I retraced my steps and, back on Il Campo, I ordered another coffee, took Hildie’s trusty notebook out of my satchel and began to write furiously.
I have the notebook in front of me now. The relevant pages are scrawled with notes, some of them illegible. There are rapturous descriptive passages, short phrases, allusions of every conceivable kind. In attempting to record what I was feeling, I scribbled notes which, at this distance, are an unbelievable revelation - even to me.
Time and again I have tried to distill them. To make sense of them. To order the confusion of thoughts, feelings and reactions.
Siena is the Queen of Cities.
The tumult of places I visited on my Grand Tour - many of which possessed sumptuous beauty, legendary magnificence and very great charm - cling to Siena’s coat-tails as she rises majestically above the Tuscan hills. Pisa, Munich, Verona, Regensburg - even Florence and Venice - can only gaze at her in wonder and envy.
For Siena improves on Nature by adorning the ground on which she reposes so gracefully, like she will adorn every memory of my Grand Tour. She is a sensuous Renaissance painting come to vivid and pulsating life. She is the Italian city whose existence we believe to be purely imaginary, so unlikely and so beautiful are her smiles and tresses and poses.
To exchange glances with Siena is to suspend disbelief and wallow in improbable seduction.
I know perfectly well that this may all seem a little pretentiously over-emphatic to those who’ve never been there and seen her. But those who have will know what I’m trying to say. They will also know that my task is impossible. Siena renders you weak at the knees and wordless. And grappling for superlatives is pointless because language is notoriously inadequate at expressing the deeper secrets of our dreams and memories.
And that’s where the Queen of my Grand Tour resides; I remember her and think about her every day and I dream about her.
Throughout this description of my Grand Tour, I have tried - with greater or lesser success - not to write simple, effervescent hymns of praise about the places I was lucky enough to visit. Rightly or wrongly, I like to think I’ve cast a mildly critical eye over my Tour’s destinations.
But it’s just not possible with Siena. I don’t want anything I say to upset or offend her; she is far too precious for that. And anyway, nothing of that kind occurs to me.
I can honestly still feel the sense of numbing wonder I felt that day as I wandered along her narrow, cramped lanes - up and down the alleyways and marble-paved streets and squares. They twist and wind and turn. They disorientate and they beckon. They seduce and they lure.
Such is the steepness of the city’s site that you are compelled to look not just right and left, not just ahead and back, but - most importantly - upwards and downwards. Every arched passageway, every cobbled or marbled twist in the street, leads the eye up to the cathedral and belltower which crown the hill or along and down to Il Campo, ‘the Field’ - which beats at Siena’s heart.
This is not a place of broad and generous boulevards and avenues. It is a city of corners and turnings. It is a narrow city inviting exploration. Your relationship with Siena is personal.
She is not only sensuous; she is sexy.
This is because she captivates all the senses.
I kept catching enticing glimpses of her rooftops and facades out of the corner of my eye, when I thought I wasn’t looking. I saw visitors smiling and silent, as awestruck as I was.
You hear her, too. When you’re there, it sounds as if the Italian language developed over the centuries simply in order to be spoken in Siena. Its tones and forms, its emphases and cadences, fill the lanes and squares and burst out onto Il Campo, which was built in Italian.
The city is the embodiment of her own language.
You can touch her, of course. The Renaissance stones and bricks want you to touch them. That is, after all, the only way to make sure it’s all real.
And smell and taste the coffee! The cakes and pastries. The pizzas, flans and pies.
This was one of the very few occasions on my Tour that I regretted my aloneness. On reflection, I think it was the only such occasion. Throughout my journey, I took positive delight in having only myself to amuse and entertain and divert. Being on holiday on my own was, after all, a completely new experience for me.
But when Siena introduces herself to you, you feel vaguely inadequate to the task in hand. And you feel frustrated, too. Experience has taught me not necessarily to subscribe to the view that the deepest pleasures and delights are better shared, but I would gladly have donated my worthless body to science there and then to have had a friend with me; someone who knew me of old; someone with whom I could suspend my disbelief; someone with whom I could be sharing my Sienese memories right now.
And someone who could temper the purple patches to which Siena has made me prone.
I want to introduce her to everyone I know.
Once in while - far, far too rarely - we all have days which make us not only glad to be alive, but glad to be who we are, where we are, right at that moment. Days when you think that things couldn’t get any better - and then they do.
Massimo and Stefano had advised me to be back in Florence for about 7 that night. They had, they said, a special treat lined up for my final night in the city.
I met up with Stefano at the Ponte Vecchio and immediately began ranting and haranguing him about my beautiful Sienese adventure - but he told me it would have to wait until later. Because tonight, Massimo (his partner) was singing the bass part in Mozart’s Requiem at an international performance in the church of San Stefano.
And I had a seat in the front row.
Any efforts I’d made on the bus to bring myself back down to earth had been a waste of time. I left my Mozart-cynicism at the door of the church and immediately the performance began, my mind was once more in the clouds as a full orchestra and chorus gave voice to his masterpiece. The setting could not have been better - a large, candle-lit Baroque church in which the music seemed to rise up to the extravagantly painted ceiling - and then out into the warm evening air of Florence.
To see my big, friendly, goatee’d bear summoning up the deep bass notes from somewhere in the underworld - all the while, smiling sweetly at Stefano and me - was wonderful. The applause at the end was deafening and Stefano’s broad smile of pride as Massimo took bow after bow was lovely to behold.
There was one final, and totally unexpected, ritual that marked my last night in Florence and in Italy.
In 1993, a car bomb outside the Uffizi Gallery (and just round the corner from the church of San Stefano) killed five people and severely damaged the gallery itself.
But the potted olive sapling near the car survived.
Today, it’s over 5 feet high and protected behind a wire fence; a plaque on the wall behind it explains that this humble olive tree is a memorial to the darker and less uplifting side of the human condition. Passers-by of all kinds leave notes of condolence, coins and flowers around the base of the tree. It has become Florence’s modern symbol of sorrow and also of hope for the future.
We passed the olive tree on our way out of the church. Massimo removed from his buttonhole the large white rose he’d been wearing for the performance and pinned it to the wire round the tree.
He does this after every performance at San Stefano.
Not all those who wander are lost.....
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