14th August 2007
I love Siena.
It's so gracious and accessible, so beautifully planned, its wonderful 'campo' like a great shallow bowl, the herringbone bricks worn smooth with centuries of evening passeggiata. It is a perfect medieval whole with majestic towers looking out over the fields and vines of rural Tuscany in its undulating spleandour all around. There's something laid back about Siena, maybe it's because it is mainly pedestrianised, and you can browse and window-shop in the chic boutiques, gaze at the gothic palace facades, eat a take-away pizza in the campo or sip an aperitivo in one of the posh cafes.
The point is that you can understand Siena without having to set foot in a single museum, with its stripey Duomo and a glut of good restaurants there's enough to keep you at it day. If you want to go to a museum, which I usually do, there are loads; including the Palazzo Pubblico and the Campo which houses the marvellous equestrian portrait of Guidoricci da Fogliano, until recently attributed to Simone Martini. Martini Shmartini - I'm not really bothered who it's by, I just like to sit and look at it.
Next door the fabulous fresco, 'Good and bad in government' is also well worth a look.
But the thing that thrills me most about Siena is the mad hectic mayhem of Il Palio.
A bareback horserace around the campo, so full of energy and sheer excitement, and performed with such passion and intensity, it is one of the most spectacular events in Italy. Everything about it is riveting and frightening; from the intrigue of the loyal contrade and their brave, 'mercenary' riders to the violent frenzy of the race itself with the drums, the taunting songs and the swaggering winners. We took the girls and some friends to one of the trial races - the real thing having been deemed 'too scary for the young'uns' - which was packed with supporters and their children, the bleachers filled with young contrade dressed in their colours singing raucous songs and waving gaudy flags. We got a place on the inner rail opposite the Palazzo Pubblico and (this will give you an idea of how gripping it is) our girls - 6 and 8 years old - stood squashed and hot against that rail without moaning for over three hours.
Trial races are 30th June/1st July and 14th/15th August and the Palio (for real) is on the 2nd of July and 16th of August - if you dare!
Best thing I ate today;
A fig eaten straight from the tree
Early in the morning as the sun licks the mountains and rises in the sky, this must be one of the most voluptuous ways to start the day.
I have discovered two large wild fig trees weeping with ripening fruit. They are a vivid green with fine skins, some of them covered with pale delicate stretch-marks. Swollen and heavy and about to burst with ripeness. I could go on and on about how sexy they are, but it's all been said before. However, I must say that to tear one of these beautiful fruit apart and discover the warm, rosey sweetness inside is rather nice.
After an initial gorging I have been rifling through my cookery books for all things 'figgy' and am planning lots of good things including Jamie Oliver's 'Crostata di Fichi' ( Jamie's Italy).
So many figs, so little time...
Where to get them;
First crop figs arrive in June and July and are called 'Fiorone', the sweeter second crop is available from August until October on fig trees all over italy.