The ancient city of Siena has spectacular culture, wonderful food and a quiet contentment - all of which make it an absorbing but relaxing getaway
In the 14th century, the Black Death cut Siena's population from 100,000 people to just 30,000, and in the ensuing centuries war and plague made the city a husk, less than a tenth of its former size. For the modern-day visitor, this dark history means that Siena is a perfectly preserved medieval Italian city. While in the Middle Ages it was one of the greatest cities in Europe, its turbulent past has made it a quiet backwater. Unless you're here for the spectacular madness of the Palio horse race in July and August, it's a breathtakingly pretty town to wander around, soaking up the glorious views, delighting in art and architecture, from the sun-faded medieval to cutting-edge avant-garde, and working your way through Tuscany's culinary delights.
Most visits to Siena will centre on the huge Piazza del Campo, called “the most beautiful square in the world” by the French Renaissance scholar Michel de Montaigne. During the Palio, it is layered with sand and becomes a huge horse-racing stadium crammed with excited, combative Sienese cheering on their riders (as featured in the Bond film Quantum of Solace). For much of the rest of the year, though, the Piazza is a vast expanse of sun-baked terracotta, where even big tour groups seem diminished into little echoing knots of people and it's possible to sit and experience a strange sense of isolation. Perched on the top of a hill, Siena's sweeping central space, with its odd tilts and curves, can make a short walk feel like floating close to the wide Tuscan sky.
On a square behind the Piazza del Campo sits one of my favourite places to eat in the world. Traditional Tuscan cuisine is robust and meaty, and it doesn't get any heartier than the Antica Trattoria Papei. Sitting in the tiled dining rooms or – better, despite a slightly unprepossessing view – on the terrace, you'll be joining this family-run restaurant's loyal local following. From the list of starters, the bruschetta topped with wild mushrooms stands out as a dish which, months later, still has my mouth watering with the memory. The main courses present a challenge to the hungriest traveller, featuring typically Tuscan stews of beans with fat, spicy local sausages or wild boar with olives. There is a dessert menu, but you won't be able to manage anything from it...
High and mighty
Siena's small size and narrow ancient streets mean that most sites are a short, albeit sometimes steep, walk away, and cars are often difficult to use. An uphill climb from the western end of the Piazza del Campo (past some extremely good ice cream parlours, should your energy need maintaining), is the Duomo – Siena's striking black-and-white striped cathedral, with its tower strangely reminiscent of a giant elongated mint humbug.
It was once conceived by the city fathers as the greatest European church outside Rome, but the Black Death's decimation of the city's population (and finances) meant that grandiose plans for a 14th-century expansion ground to a halt, leaving massive arched walls springing hundreds of feet from the square below, but only running along one side of the intended building. The results are spectacular and confusing, drawing the visitor to wander through the half-finished sections of the building, imagining what the completed version might have looked like.
Despite apparently being too small for the pre-Plague Sienese authorities, the inside of the existing cathedral is still a glorious space, with works by big names like Donatello and Michaelangelo as well as local artists. It's important, though, to keep an eye on the floor, which boasts dozens of amazing mosaics depicting biblical and historical scenes. Only a few are uncovered at any one time, except for a short time in September when you can see the full range in all its glory.
Art and about
Siena, like many great Italian cities, is a feast for lovers of medieval and renaissance art, with churches and museums full of religious images and classical sculptures. But it also offers the sharp contrast of some terrific cutting-edge modern art. The recent move of the Palazzo della Papesse contemporary art gallery to the Santa Maria della Scala complex, opposite the Duomo, brings much of Siena's best art under one roof. Modern shows have included single-artist exhibitions, but the real highlights sometimes come from group programmes like the disturbingly-titled System Error: War is a Force that Gives us Meaning, a 2007 exhibition that included moving and thought-provoking reflections on conflict and human rights.
Finally, however glorious a city, anyone staying for more than a couple of days is going to want to get away occasionally. Buses and trains from Siena make plenty of destinations available, from Tuscan hilltop villages to the grand city of Florence. And despite Siena's hills, cycling tours are a wonderful way to see some of the surrounding countryside. Bicycle hire alone is possible, but David Charnes of Bicycle Tuscany is a relaxed, knowledgeable guide who can offer guided trips of between one and five days, introducing the history and nature of the region and weaving in visits to Chianti wineries and traditional olive oil mills on the way.
Where to stay
Hotel Borgo Grondaie
, just outside the city: a quiet hotel/apartment complex with salt-water swimming pool.
Where to eat
Antica Trattoria Papei: fantastically filling and tasty traditional food at great prices in the Piazza del Mercato.
Bicycle Tuscany offers relaxed, informative bike tours to suit all fitness levels, with an English-speaking guide.
Tour operator Imaginative Traveller, commended for its social and environmental policies, runs walking tours in and around Siena.