Serendipity in Italy, Part 3

I’m homesick for Tuscany. But “homesick” doesn’t seem to be the right word, as I’ve never been “home” there. Is there a word for how I feel about a place that isn’t my home? I feel the same way about Colorado and the alpine cabin I spent a week in every summer for six years. Its a punch in the gut when I see a picture of that far-away place, a warm prickle of longing when I replay a memory in my mind. Its the kind of feeling reserved for the most special of places and faces. It happens when I see a picture from Tuscany—a hilltop village baked golden brown in the sun—or hear the name Siena.

For this series, I’ve gone through my vacation memories and pulled out the serendipitous moments. Siena, though, was Serendipity. From start to finish, Siena boasted the best day and a half of our trip.

Siena wasn’t as much about seeing the sights as experiencing Tuscany. We saw the duomo, its baptistery, and a strange crypt-like room—each only halfway memorable—and we wandered the frescoed halls of the Palazzo Pubblico, which was more memorable. These were smaller repeats of things we had seen in Florence. Siena, though, came across as the “real-deal” Tuscany. [I won’t go too far with that statement because Siena is still one of the larger towns in the region and there’s so much more to explore; the smaller towns are probably even more so the “real deal”]. It had all of the Tuscan charm of Florence without the size or bustle.

In Siena, we said, “This is Italy.”

Let’s start with our journey into Siena. The train was a relic; it had at most three cars hooked together and moseyed its way out of the station. Rick Steves’ warning that Italian trains run slow was at last proved correct. The mint-colored interior of our car appeared to have been untouched for at least forty years. There was no climate control and the narrow windows were opened school-bus style, allowing hot air to buffet our faces. But no matter. The route the train followed (and this held true for the train out of Siena as well) was a back country road compared to the interstate of the other train routes we had taken. We ponderously crossed over the main streets of villages with names like Castelfiorentino and Poggibonsi, their houses and businesses stacked right up to the tracks. We meandered through dozens of sunflower fields and a few vineyards. The distant views of tiny, ancient towns crowning nearly every rise kept me glued to the window and vowing to come back someday in a car.

The taxi ride from the station to the hotel was unforgettable. The driver shot through the narrow, inches-wide streets, while shoppers and tourists and grannies wove around the car and stepped off of the sidewalk without a glance to the right or left. I know I held my breath, and I know he missed people by inches. I would like to see some statistics on hit-and-run incidents in Italy.

Now, I always feel some trepidation about booking foreign non-chain hotels sight-unseen and booking one in Siena was no exception. This time, however, I hit the jackpot. I’m not even sure I will name it online for fear it will be “discovered.” It was more than just a home base, a place to sleep and maybe eat breakfast. I would call our hotel a Tuscan destination.

My expectations were low as the taxi pulled up to a nondescript door along a very brown side street (everything here was sienna—the name given to that brownish-orange color of earth in Siena). The hotel foyer was also unremarkable, though it appeared to have its original period ceiling. But that view down the hall—! Through double glass doors at the end of the hall was a landscaped terrace with a low, stone wall overlooking endless miles of Tuscan countryside. And, when we made it up to our room after checking in with a crew of cheerful, lovely young ladies, we had the same view from the window. Our room had a timber and clay tile ceiling over a fluffy bed, a luxurious bathroom, and I was starting to wonder why I had thought we needed only one night in Siena.

For lunch we found a hole-in-the-wall ristorante around the corner from the hotel. A large group of attractive young, dark-haired, Italian men filled the front room, sitting around a dining-room-sized table sharing platters of mouthwatering food. A huge refrigerated case full of cheeses, meats, and all manner of pasta concoctions took up the rest of the space. We ordered from a hand-written, all-Italian menu, and asked for nearly every tomato dish they offered. My mouth is watering remembering the bruschetta, caprese, and panzanella, all piled high with chunks of sweet tomato and ribbons of basil. Hands down, it was the best food I ate in Italy.

The Duomo of Siena

The floor in the duomo was covered in these intricate designs.

A stunning ceiling with gold leaf in the Palazzo Pubblico.

Dinner that night was a close second. It might have taken top honors if I hadn’t still been suffering from a bad cold, which caught up with me again at dinnertime. Even so, eating at the Antica Osteria da Divo was one of the most fun dining experiences I have had. A hostess led us through the brightly-lit, cavernous restaurant toward a set of stairs at the back. We followed her down into a cellar-like room, with tunnels leading off in several directions. Our table had its own niche in the rock, making it a quiet and cozy space. We snuck a few surreptitious pictures after the hostess walked away. We shared a family-sized bowl of ribolitta soup, bolognese (that I am still trying to replicate) over fresh tagliatelle, and stuffed pork tenderloin with mashed potatoes. There may have been some more chocolate mousse involved, too. I was able to taste only half of the food around blowing my nose, but I’d do it again in a minute.

The interior of the Antica Osteria da Divo.

The day had turned to night by the time we left the restaurant; it was dark and mild. We wandered toward the piazza in the glowing light spilling from storefronts and restaurants, casually searching for the day’s serving of gelato. We found a spot to sit directly on the still sun-warmed stone pavement of the piazza, facing the beautiful tower of the Palazzo. Siena’s piazza is the largest open town square in Italy, and people treat it like a beach—spreading out, reclining, and people-watching.

We settled in for what turned out to be our most entertaining people-watching adventure yet. Couples and children strolled around us from every direction, the young Arabs were peddling the same light-up toys that we had seen in Florence, but the group that drew our eyes stood only a few feet away. There were two middle-aged couples and two teenaged boys, probably from Germany. They looked and interacted like in-laws and cousins. One of the boys had bought a light-up spinner and tried to set it in motion. The trick was to fling it up in the air, like shooting a rubber band, and it would float in a helicopter motion back to the ground. The peddlers could launch them as high as the roofs surrounding the piazza. The boys could not launch it more than a couple of feet and sideways. After several minutes of futility, one of the men motioned for the spinner with a “Here, let me do this” face. He confidently grasped the toy, flicked the band—and it smacked back into his hand. He shook out his hand in pain while his family burst into laughter. Then he began to giggle. And giggle. We watched for fifteen hilarious minutes as first one family member, then another, tried the toy with little luck. They never stopped laughing; they had themselves so wound up that we started laughing, too.

We could not understand a word of their language, yet laughing with them created an instant affinity for a family we’d never met and would never see again. We were reminded, as we were so many times on this trip, that people are the same the world over. When they finally drifted away, the piazza felt sadly empty and quiet. In a few short minutes, we got up and wandered off, too.

The next morning, I admit that I was rueing my decision to move on to Rome after only one day in Siena. But we squeezed every last drop of pleasure out of our time. The countryside was bright and clear, the air soft before the heat of the day. We found a gourmet cold breakfast on the terrace: hams, cheeses, boiled eggs, fruit, breads with an abundance of honeys, jams, and butters, and teas and coffees. We parked along the stone wall in a shady, cool spot. After we had eaten, one of us went back to our room for our books; we wanted desperately to prolong the enjoyable moment. Pulling away at last was hard. This was a place and time to be bottled up for safekeeping in our memory.

Given the abundance of over-exuberant travelogues—maybe including the one you just read—the reality of this “homesick” feeling gets lost in superlatives and cliche. It is hard to avoid saying, “This was the best pasta I ever ate … That was the most charming village I’ve ever seen ….” The truth is, though, some places stick with you more than others, and it’s a surprising sensation. I really have no idea why my brain would assign the same emotion to a place where I spent a few days as it does to places where I’ve spent years of my life. But it does.

Maybe someday I’ll invent the right word to add to the lexicon.