If I were to write what I know, as they say they should, I would tell you that it is February and London is not at its best. It is a few months yet until the people pour out into the streets at 6pm or thereabouts, and upon seeing the sun still lingering in the sky, feel that the day is still full of possibilities.
Instead then — especially what with it being Valentine’s week and all — I shall write what I love. I shall tell you how at the age of 18 I found myself falling for a city called Siena, that has lingered constantly in my mind ever since, even while other romances have blossomed and faded around me.
It couldn’t have done any harm that on that first evening as I stepped through the city gates, it was shortly before dusk and the whole place was bathed in the golden light of a glorious August evening. Each segment of the city fizzed with Pre-Palio excitement. Bright flags bearing proud geese here and formidable fish there rippled in the gentlest of breezes. The cheers and drum beats of a parade echoed through the streets towards us until we came upon it, and stood aside as it whirled past in a boisterous frenzy of resplendent banners and costumes and instruments. Each towering, twisted alleyway was tantalisingly appealing and drew me this way and that before spitting me out at the point where all the paths in Siena eventually lead.
The Piazza del Campo opened up before me and I saw for the first time the distinct shapes I would trace over in my mind again and again: the elegant Gothic clock tower that from no angle seems completely perpendicular to the floor; the attentive audience of yellow buildings arranged in a crooked amphitheatre, gazing up at it; the gentle, ridged slope leading down to the Palazzo base like an empty pink scallop shell.
I went on to poor Florence, Siena’s charismatic old rival, afterwards — too late for me to succumb to its charms. While I was taken with its flamboyant Italian ego, my heart lay elsewhere. I was lured back to Siena before nightfall, so that I could again be one of the lucky few to wile away the afterglow of the day in the shallow scoop of the piazza, where families and friends enjoyed the shared experience of being completely absorbed in their own dramas, their own worlds.
And so last autumn I returned, feeling resolutely that despite my impressionable age, I had not merely been a slave to teenage infatuation and that my feelings had endured for the simple reason that Siena was a place worthy of being adored.
I stayed at the Hotel Alma Domus — an old convent attached to the Casa Santuario di Santa Caterina that offers simple, clean rooms, an unremarkable breakfast served by friendly nuns and views of the city that made me wish I never had to leave.
I dined twice just across the street at Il Pomodorino on pillowy, aromatic pizzas — perhaps the best that have passed my lips in a lifetime of avid pizza eating.
I piled into Caffe Fiorella behind the Piazza del Campo with local businessmen on their way to work to sip on extravagant coffee granita topped with cream at the bar.
I watched Gino Cacino slice off wafer-thin slivers of meat and sandwich them between crusty bread with soft cheese made from cow’s milk in his deli on the Piazza Mercato. I savoured the creation while sitting on a wall at the opposite end of the square, rotating slightly now and then to try and take in as much of the panorama as possible.
Rich, creamy gelato from Grom cooled me down in the warm afternoons.
Red wine from anywhere that sold it by the bottle warmed me through in the evening, as I took my place with my companion, my corkscrew and two plastic cups among the happy people nestled in the scallop shell to watch the bats emerge from the wall cavities of the Palazzo Comunale.
Another afternoon, I bought my own antipasti and panforte and more red wine and took it back to sit on my balcony so I could read my book and watch the sky change colour above the duomo across the narrow Fontebranda Valley until the stars appeared.
It is in this state — liberated from listlessness, totally absorbed in place and time, bewitched — that this travel tale-cum-love story perpetually pauses for now (but definitely does not end). Prosperous, pretty Siena has a power over me that means despite its diminutive size, I doubt it will ever lose its allure.
Have you ever been to Siena? Where in Italy has captured your imagination? I’ve only ever been to Tuscany, so give me some ideas of more places I can fall in love with.