Days that are curiously uncertain turn out to be remarkable adventures, both big and small. My first experience of Siena was just that: a quick 1.5 hour trip on a regional train through Tuscany to meet family members whose names are the only thing I can identify them with.
Before I expand on my Senese adventure, I have to declare that I am very close to changing blog sites. I wrote short and simple post Friday night, pushing through my sleepy eyes to finalize it before hitting the hay. It was published. It disappeared into the world wide web. It is gone. Not in the trash, not in the drafts. A pure mystery that apparently wordpress cannot solve. And so, like all of us humans, we are forced to move on. Now, I am here again, writing on a Google Doc just in case WordPress decides to go A-WALL on me again.
Back to yesterday… Having my parents there made this day trip a lot less confusing. They met my Italian family at an age where memories stick. I was barely two years old. My cousin and cousin in law’s faces were practically brand new to me. Stereotypically short and robust, this lovely couple were eager to seize the day and enjoy every single breathe.
We entered Siena’s center briefly; most of it is difficult or even forbidden to enter with by car. There was an insistence to check out the Basilica di San Domenico, frequented by Santa Caterina. The basilica contains the highest church ceilings I have ever encountered. Its gothic style was not imposing. It is a thriving piece of history. While I nearly broke my neck looking up, my cousin in law disappeared. Where did this former general of the Carabinieri go? Suddenly, he returned with a volunteer of the church, thinking the guy spoke English. He gave us a mini tour alright, in some odd dialect of Italian. It sounded like a Catalonian speaking Italian. He explained how the patches of painting on the walls were centuries old and faded due to natural disasters. Siena, perched delicately on the hill, is more susceptible to these occurrences, making pristine monuments in danger of destruction.
I was extremely exhausted after being appointed translator of the most confounding dialect I have ever heard. I absolutely love the exploration of native tongues. I got what I asked for. Before I could relax, we were pushing through a crowd of wedding attendees, chatting jubilantly, to see the original sanctuary below the massive basilica. I was frightened, thinking I was about to recreate Wedding Crashers, Siena edition. Thankfully, the wedding was long over. The people appeared so incredibly joyous that they forgot the bride and groom left. I do have to admit, holding your tongue during any mass is a test within itself. Upon entering the sanctuary, the stone imposed a coolness that dried our necks from the scorching Tuscan sun.
This photo was taken hangerily. Yes, hangry: the overpowering hungry, which causes you to transform into the worst version of yourself. That is probably why it is crooked. Thankfully, the word casa and pranzo were thrown around quickly as we left the church. My stomach churned at each syllable as we exited the core of Siena, after it opened its heart to us.*
The couple invited us graciously into their home, like we were family members who lived around the corner for decades. We chatted over a quick apertif of bitters, peanuts, and paprika crisps. Soon, we relocated to the wooden table, dressed with plates of prosciutto e melone, crostini toscani con fegatini, and some sort of an Italian twist of a mayo based pasta (so called) salad. Listen up, I do not like anything swimming in mayo. But, whatever she put in that “salad” was to die for. Did I mention she makes her own mayo? And, when her aunt (my grandmother) brought her a jar of Heinz mayo, she was not to thrilled because she prefers her own. She knows that slow food is the best food.
After much talking, she snuck into the kitchen to finish up her pici al sugo. The portion was the size of my head and I ate it all, with no thoughts or considerations for whether there was more food to come. It was extraordinarily delicious. Something simple filled with such potent flavor. I teared a little. It miraculously eased any tensions I experienced with the language barrier. Did I mention my cousins speak a small lick of English? I was, again, the translator and moderator. Food was my tool to calming the English and Italian words bouncing around like gas molecules in my brain.
I found it fascinating to hear their perspective on former state identity. You know, the Firenze versus Siena deal, the South speaks incomprehensible Italian. While I explained how Firenze is known for the most proper Italian, I was quickly corrected by my cousin in law who informed me that Siena possesses the more eloquent Italian. I told him that my studying in Firenze must be an awkward subject then. He laughed. Then, he poured wine.
The next to come was a simply roasted than lightly sautéed veal as well as a delicate parmigiana di melanzane. I was stuffed already, but I managed to have a piece of each. Wine tends to help, constructing extra rooms in your stomach for new guests to occupy. This course emphasized the unique thing that is mostly consistent in the cuisine throughout Italy: they do not eat hoards of meat in one sitting. Yes, there is the Florentine steak exception. However, the veal was cut paper thin and coated gently with juice specked with pieces of thyme. The melanzane was not soaked in sugo and mozzarella; you could actually eat flavorful pieces of the fruit (yes, eggplant is technically a fruit.) She also prepared some sliced tomatoes with only some salt. The most fragrant tomato to encounter.
If I could put the experience in a few words: I never wanted to leave that table, ever.
And, we didn’t. For a long time, actually. Their son in law came by from the hospital to chat and be force fed. He spoke decent English and was very inspiring with his medical endeavors. We sipped a refined 2012 Chianti that you could only get for 60 euros here. I found a place in Northern Italy, a hidden gem withheld in a condo at the foot of historical Siena.
Of course, there was caffe, fruit, and gelato, which I nibbled lightly on. I realized I do not love sweets universally. I am very picky with them. It always flabbergasts me when people drink cappuccinos following a meal. Maybe it is from my knowledge of Italian mannerisms, but it does not make sense. Who wants steamed milk and foam after they eat a full meal?
I believe 3 hours at least were spent at the table. We were stunned by the passing of time. We needed to see Siena and leave for Firenze before sundown. I spent too much time enjoying each moment to capture an appetizing photo of each dish. My cousin in law, who was adamant on how everyone knows him (a fact,) decided to give us the world’s quickest tour of Siena. Up and down the windy, ancient roads, I found myself admiring every crevice. Its a mecca of history, art, and sociology. I could only gather up an impression through the glimpses of the unfinished Duomo, views of San Domenico, and smells coming from random trattorie and ristoranti. Also, my cousin’s impeccable knowledge of everything. He is proud, naming Siena’s Piazza del Campo “la più bella piazza del mondo.” I am pretty sure almost every building dates back to 1200 AD. The brief tour left me hanging from the edge of Siena’s steep hill, with gravity dragging me back to Firenze.
Duomo di Siena
Piazza del Campo (where the Palio is held)
A beautiful must see view within Siena
The day ended rapidly. Suddenly, I was in a compact sedan, moving further and further away from Siena into the rolling Tuscan Hills. The drive was marvelous and provoked my exhaustion. We spoke of family here and in America. We all occasionally admired the streams of pink painted in the sky; an adieu to the sleepy sun. Our day together was an undertaking on both parts, with language barriers and unknowns. The Siena I know now is neither the one I expected nor the one I thought I knew of.
*On Ponta Camollia, there is an inscription that declares “Siena ti apre un cuore più grande” (Siena opens its very large heart to you.)