Normal service is resumed

What better recovery from a long-winded MA than a visit to see Billy Elliot at the Victoria Palace Theatre on Tuesday?  I was slightly bemused by the message in the foyer that “There is moderate swearing in this production – but not as much as the film though”.  Although this production has been open for five years, I hadn’t seen it.  Theatre buddy and myself were deeply impressed by it – not only a wonderful production with excellent choeography, but a strong libretto (which modern musicals often don’t have, and the words between the songs often stick like mucus between the ears), acting standards resolutely high and a sense of true political integrity which is usually the characteristics of “straight” drama.  I don’t know why David Hare should have all the fun when it comes to political integrity.  Musicals should be a space where political passion can be formidably expressed through the tight medium of tap-dancing.  Too many modern musicals play into the hands of those who think a night out at the theatre should be like pouring cosy, sweet semolina into the brains of the audience, and providing a light entertainment that barely skims the surface.  Mamma Mia, you have a lot to answer for.  All power to the politically engaged musical plot, I say.

For those of you who were struggling with the cut and paste from Google language tools, we’re reverted back to our English heading here at The London Bluebird and done away with the Italian grammar.  We are now back on English soil, and our sojourn around the hills of central Tuscany seems as hazy and distant as the site of Shelley’s Viareggio drowning viewed from the city of Lucca.   Mr Bluebird and I have pledged never to fly HorridAir again as it was just so frightful.  A two hour delay at Pisa, being rammed into a distinctly unpleasant National Express bus at Stansted, rolling through the front door at 2am, weeping for a cup of normal tea and a hot water bottle. 

Back in London the skies are darkening and winter is on her way, which is awful for me, as it is every year.  I try to get into it.  I roast chickens, baste animals that were happy clucking around a farmyard a couple of days previously, make stews, cook with cinnamon and hot hunks of ginger.  I watch Strictly, try to think about all that nonsense about seasons of mists and mellow fruitfulness but it doesn’t work.  There is no mellow fruitiness on the Finchley Road (the Hampstead Garden Suburb Residents’ Association wouldn’t have it).  Autumn is rife with narrow wintry awfulness.  Instead, I’ve done what I didn’t think I would do.  I have gone back to the library following the completion of my MA.

Glutton for punishment I may be, but I’ve gone back to the M E Braddon shelf diligent readers from https://thelondonbluebird.wordpress.com/2010/03/11/chick-lit-1860s-style/ will remember as that bastion of 1860s chick lit whose 70 novels are – with the exception of 2 – entirely out of print.  The London Library has been the only place I didn’t want to leave.  I have just read the ludicrous “Birds of Prey” with its murder in the first few chapters and dastardly goings on about inheritances and money in Baywater villas inhabited by sneaky stockbrokers.  Next on the list is “The Trail of the Serpent” which has been recently republished with an excellent foreword by that denizen of neo-Victorian lesbian tomfoolery, Sarah Waters.  I might do a PhD on her (Braddon, not Waters.  Sapphic exchanges in down at heel music halls aren’t quite my cup of tea) and appear to have become addicted, not just to reading Victorian texts, but to the particularly academic manner of reading.  The MA, in terms of its discipline has done its work and I have become indoctrinated in the art of sitting with book in one hand, hot-pink cartridged fountain pen in the other, noting, noting, noting, unsure of where it will get me.  Meanwhile, on the commuting front, I am making quick work of the exquisitely honed Every Man for Himself, from one of my favourite writers, Beryl Bainbridge.  A perfect accompaniment for soupy grey mornings on the bus to Oxford Street, blinking out onto roads with cars still with their lights on at 8am.  Honestly, this being cold for the winter business.  It’s shit, isn’t it? 

The only thing I can think to do about it is get a job working from home so I can sit in warm pyjamas all day and not go out.  But how many jobs are there out there in a time like this, for a fast-typing, fast-talking, musical viewing  book addict with Victorianist tendencies and a habit of singing Rogers & Hart in the bath of an afternoon?  If anyone has any ideas please send to Bluebird, Fourth Shelf, Fiction Section, Third Floor London Library, St James’s Square.  If the postman has problems finding me, I’m the one cowering under the 1870s M E Braddon collection, weeping for the loss of summer.

The Italian Job – Part 4

I wake up in Pienza with a Dissertation – based nightmare.    A quick shower later and it’s down to the usual peculiar 3 star Italian breakfast, in which we are the only people dining.  We decide to go for another coffee at a local bar where you are supposed to buy tickets for the bus.  The coffee is good but the bar for bus tickets is closed on Tuesdays.  We head to another bar, purchase our tickets for Montepulciano and return to our B&B to collect our luggage.  “How do you ask,’I have forgotten to unplug my i-Phone charger?’ in Italian”, Mr Bluebird asks of me.  Clearly, the mountain air has got to him, as my Italian could get to “How do you…?” but would then fade away in linguistic incompetence.  Fortunately his charger is retrieved and we are bang on time for the 1205 bus.  It starts to rain.

The 1205 bus doesn’t come.  The rain, on the other hand, does.  I hide under my jacket under a tree.  A nearby American couple, delirious with happiness that we are English speakers, would like our help in dicyphering the bus timetable.   I can, but have misunderstood that the summer timetable has ended, and that as it is now October 5th, it is the winter timetable.  Thank goodness.  That meant we were delayed by two hours.  And if it had been summer, and the 1205 bus had turned up we would have missed the delights of La Trattoria da Fiorella.  This restaurant doesn’t have its own website for me to big it up, but TripAdvisor’s reviews are here : www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g644280-d1451273-Reviews-Trattoria_Fiorella-Pienza_Tuscany.html.  The very, very best pici with tagiolini of our entire trip was eaten here, with fabulous house wine (“A litre?!” asked our innocent waiter, disbelievingly.  “Oh yes please,” chirruped Mr and Mrs Bluebird).  A gorgeous table on the balcony of this family-run trattoria gave us the benefit of staring at everyone else’s plates and analysing what they were eating.  So jammed was La Trattoria da Fiorella that they had to start turning away diners at 2.15pm, who were pushed out in the heavy rain.  A double espresso (you gotta love that caffeine, kids) spirited us out of the door, through the rain and onto the 1425 bus for Montepulciano, which dropped us off by 3pm.

At Montepulciano you have a choice.  You can either push yourself uphill for the 15 minute walk to the top of the town, where the Piazza Grande crowns the town, or you can take the little orange bus that delivers you there in a quarter of the time and runs with remarkable efficiency every 15 minutes from the bus station. Of course, we did the latter, rolling up the beautiful streets of Montepulciano, until we emerged, blinking and gasping at the views, in the Piazza Grande, close to our apartment.  If I could only work out how to upload pictures from my husband’s I-phone I could show you the splendours of it, but it still wouldn’t do the city justice.  It’s perched on a great slab of volcanic rock, sitting pretty over Chianti and blissfully peaceful in early October.  Our apartment was in the lovely www.palazzobellarmino.com, a splendid house now converted into affordable apartments right off the Piazza Grande.   It enables you to feel quite the resident, although rattling about in a large flat with nothing but a suitcase full of crumpled dresses and a battered EM Forster made the whole place seem empty.  We tripped out for an evening stroll amidst grand hill and blush pink skies, rolling down roads between rotund American tourists.  A supper of the best vongole my husband said he had ever tasted was preceded by a visit to a little bit of Vienna in Montepulciano, the alarmingly belle epoque www.caffepoliziano.it  which had a vast, high-ceiled tea room covered with velvet brown booths and huge gilt mirrors, as if stuck in a Edwardian time warp.  Espressos can be supped on a precarious balcony overlooking the Val D’Orcia and you can feel like you’re in a film.  Coo.   Even the pre-dinner spritzer that Mr Bluebird ordered arrived filled with James Bond joie de vivre in a classic martini glass, a change from the usual Italian tumbler. 

Getting pissed is fine because you’re going to struggle to find your way home to the apartment anyway.  High black alleyways crawl up to pedestrianized streets, lit by dark yellow lamps, and if you feel that the road is bending up and around in front of you because you are drunk, it actually is  bending up and around in front of you.  You must climb up until you collapse in a fuggy, sweaty heat on the steps of the cathedral.   The Chianti table wine kills the pain in the calves.  At the top, we would sit outside the cathedral, finding ourselves the only people in the square at 11pm; Montepulciano seems to close for business early.

In the morning Mr Bluebird couldn’t locate spoons and had no option but to stir the Lavazza coffee in the cafetiere using the wrong end of his toothbrush.  Then he tried to ‘plunge’ only he forgot how espresso coffee is as fine as fairy dust.  The whole lot exploded over our pretty apartment.  Eventually he manoeuvred it into the diddy, tiny dollshouse espresso cups.  Everything in Italy is either tiny-weeny, or enormous.  This is not a country for the moderate, my friends.

The Italian Job – Part 3

Of course I couldn’t read a word of that farking book.  What was I thinking?  So, after we got up and dressed on Monday morning, bought double espressos and sat right in the  middle of the slanting, brick red pavement of the Piazza del Campo eating lovely prosciutto and formaggio sandwiches and had been waved off by Daniela, it was back to the international bookshop.  I bought a travel-sized Inglese/Italiano dictionary.  Unsure about the famously complex Italian bus network, we wandered up to Piazza Gramsci to find out which bus would take us to Siena’s railway station and, from there, out to Pienza on the 112 route.  The entire system is deisgned to aggravate and upset tourists.  In the UK there are bus timetables pasted up at every bus stop, and it is easily understood when the next bus is – or isn’t – coming.  In Italy, there are few timetables and no maps of the routes, which means you cannot check where you are going, you then get on what you think is the right bus, and end up in Poland.  We thought, after staring at the inscrutable timetables for a bit, we should get the Bus Nos 3 or 4.  We asked a couple of drivers.  They suggested 7 or 10.  Another trip to the bus office proved they were in fact wrong, and we should get 4 or 7. 

This happened frequently during our trip.  We would ask drivers/flight attendants/ train ticket inspectors and pedestrians where they were and where they were going and strangely, they hadn’t a clue.  Totally exacerbated and, my original insistence on independently negotiating the bus transport wilting, we found our bus that would take us to the station, and it was one of the ones with “taxi” written on the front of it in fat, comforting letters. 

At the station, further confusion of the tourist travel variety ensues.  The automated machine deals in what appears to be a pre-Etruscan latinate dialect, and demands something that looked like drachma for payment.  The ladies behind the grotty perspex window looked like frightening PE teachers.  The queue was 17 people long.   If it wasn’t for a kindly Australian girl who helped us operate the machine and then showed us that our bus timetable was concealed behind some tarpaulin sheeting that had been placed outside the station by a construction company, we would still be walking in circles around the forecourt of Siena station weeping and crying about going back to England.  She had learned the hard way several days earlier about bussing it down to Chianti.  She had missed the 7.25am bus by four minutes, and there wasn’t another for 6 hours.  Then, between 1.25pm and 1.35pm they send four of them, full to bursting with adolscent school children.

Our bus, once we eventually got on it, ran smoothly and beautifully out of Siena and through the lush countryside towards Montepulciano.  It was overcast and cloudy, so Chianti didn’t look as chipper as usual, but it was still divine to watch it slide by out of the bus window.  One hour and twenty five minutes later, having passed tons of agriculturismos, farms, small towns, outlaying cottages, picked up Italian housewives and deposited aged husbands, we rolled into Pienza.  It was exquisite.  A teeny, Renaissance masterpiece, it was constructed in almost its entirety between 1459 and 1462, boasts stunning churches and beautiful stone houses.   I should remind you that round about this point the English were still trying to work out how to spell “wattle and daub” and were building houses specifically designed to burn down quickly in fires.  Pienza was utterly beautiful, with breathtaking views of the Val D’Orcia.  The view from behind the church by the city walls over the valley looked too perfect to be real, but rather like a tourist postcard:

Not bad, eh?  I mean, it’s better than Watford High Street. Just about.  The first (and only, it turned out) drops of rain of our holiday fell down as we searched for our hotel, through the streets with tiny shops groaning with pecorino, Pienza’s most fabulous invention.  Fortunately, it was off-season, which mean the drone of loud Americans was reduced to nothing more than a slightly irritating hum. Our hotel was the lovely http://www.arcadipienza.it/ run by the fabulous and helpful Gloria, who proved to be the most patient person we encountered on the trip when it came to my Italian grammar.  Our room was so delightful that we suddenly passed out in it on arrival due to exhaustion.  Pienza is tiny, but it was no doubt the most charming destination of our entire trip to me.  Meandering through back streets brings you only to another low, city wall and another devastating view.  We took a brief tour around the main church, which was inviting and full of light, although I preferred the darker one next door.  My brother texted for another brother’s postal address to send a birthday card.  I said I was away, I didn’t have it and was about to eat wild boar in Tuscany.  He replied that he was in the West End, it was raining, there was a tube strike, the Tories had gone and abolished child benefit for men like him, and to top it all off, the X Factor was back on TV.    For once, it seemed, the London Bluebird was better off overseas and away from blighty. 

We sat down for a pre-supper glass of wine.  Despite the fact there was a chill in the air, it was still glorious to sit looking out at a Renaissance square in front of you, the drop-dead gorgeous view of the Chianti valley to your left and, to your right, the generous proportions of the large-bottomed American lady speaking loudly about the stress of looking after her aged mother.  Oh well, you can’t have everything.  We popped back to the hotel before going out again to our pre-booked table at Dal Falco, which I cannot rate highly enough. http://www.ristorantedalfalco.it/  There’s a lot of poncing around going on in Tuscany.  A lot of smug-looking English-ers poncing about ordering over-rated expensive wines whilst missing out on the delectable local vino, a lot of pretentious lip-smacking goes on, particularly about boar.  Dal Falco was refreshing in that it was a real restaurant, frequented by large families, and run by another large family.  At the table next to us, about 12 members of one family came and went from the restaurant in the space of two hours, headed by a grandmother who spent an hour and a half with the television remote control in one hand and her fork in the other, listening very loudly to a TV movie set in 1920s Italy whilst she sat directly underneath it ignoring most of her fellow diners.  The food was, of course, perfect.  Mr Bluebird opted for pici pasta with porcini, following by lamb chops and spinach, and I went for a wild boar stew – delicious, simple, local wine of the house at €8,00 a litre.  My husband always leaves room for pudding, and usually makes sure that pudding is a tiramisu.  This was all delightful, and we stayed there for three hours in the end, watching the various members of the family that ran the restaurant pile in, chat to each other and pile out again.  It must have been the post-dinner double espressos that meant I got the outrageous giggles back in our hotel room, where drunkenness and sheer joy of being in Pienza meant that I ended up laughing at nothing in particular until I wanted to be sick.

The Italian Job – Part 2

I woke up to what sounded like someone blowing their nose in a corner of my brain.  Once fully awake I realised that the shower to the room opposite was directly behind the wall which was directly behind my head.  Someone was coughing up phlegm.  The most romantic of early Sunday morning sounds in this radiant little tributary of Tuscany.  It was a chilly morning and we made the quest out to look for what the Italians don’t have; breakfast.  Perhaps it’s our cooler climes, but in England, and any European country further north, breakfast is what stops you getting bronchitis and flu.  Strapping lumps of meat, fat, eggs, bread, butter, more eggs, a sausage and another round of bread doused in marmalade is basically what keeps us alive in the winter.  For the Italians this does not happen.  So unimportant is breakfast, that they don’t even eat it sitting down.  They stand up, chins raised, in small cafes and gulp down a quick slug of expresso and a teeny weeny pastry dusted with icing sugar.

We found a delightful couple of tramezzini proscuitti (that’s ham sandwiches to you and me) and ate them propped up at a sticky bar with a couple of cappucinos.  Most of the Italians around us were seeking the hairs of dogs that had bitten them in the night, gulping down Camparis and beers before going to church.  We decided to be good tourists and headed off for the cathedral, where the trestle tables had been cleared from the night before and where tourists filled the piazza, which was now decidedly hot.  The weather was schizophrenic throughout our stay in Siena, chilly enough to have coats on one minute and blazing sun the next.

A Museum dell’Opera!  I’d like some of that!  Our €10,00 ticket for the Cathedral (boring, church-y stuff with religious things in it.  No cafe) included this Museum dell’Opera.  Fantastic, I thought.  There’ll be fancy dresses for fat ladies and things like that, and paintings of Puccini chortling heartily.  Only it wasn’t like that at all.  It was a series of 13th and 14th century stone sculptures of religious people (YAWN) like Moses and John the Baptist.  I was perplexed that there wasn’t an aria in sight.  Perhaps they’d got the signage wrong.    Upstairs there was a rash of adoring magi, a collection of Latin manuscripts (interesting from a calligraphic point of view) and a collection of bibles on the third floor.  Entirely disappointed by the absence of showbiz stuff, I realised that I was in fact wrong, and that in the late medieval ages the church was showbiz.  Music, bells, great costumes, theatrical hats, what’s not to be impressed by?    In fact the cardinals had a lot of bling.  We saw a gold display that the Pope gave Siena in the 15th century and it was well chavvy.  It looked like a large gold hat with sprigs and springs coming off it topped with gold roses.  It looked like the kind of hat Cilla Black would wear to Kerry Katona’s next wedding.

Our lunch was a celebratory lunch that Mr Bluebird was buying me to say well done over finishing my MA and it was simply splendid.  After we’d had our fill of gaudy glittery things with a bit of religion attached, we hopped off to http://www.osteriadadivo.it/eng/chi-siamo.htm.  This is Siena’s smartest restaurant, where you get to dine amidst Etruscan tombs, and where I had booked for a table from London.   It was, needless to say, absolutely marvellous.  Mr Bluebird opted for a starter involving gnocchi and scallops whilst I destroyed an antipasti plate groaning with chicken liver crostini.  At one point the risotto trolley wheeled past us.  It served the next table, where dollops of risotto were served from an entire, enormous, hollowed parmesan.  I got to know pici pasta for the first time, Siena’s slant on spaghetti, which is slightly thicker, handrolled, and which I had with a wild boar sauce.   Mr Bluebird opted for something fabulous involving seabass and porcini mushrooms, all of which was merrily washed down with a vat of chianti.  Marvellous. 

We staggered back to our hotel, our starters and mains settling down heavily in our stomachs, and woozily contemplated what to do about dinner.  I was aghast at my ability for consumption.  We decided to book dinner on the way home, to get into a nearby trattoria which had been booked the night before when we had tried to get in.  We booked a table for 7.30pm, but we had yet to learn the fatal mistake.  A 2pm lunch of the type we had had would not even begin to touch the outer rim of the colon until about 6pm on the following Wednesday week.  We had literally bitten off more than we could chew.  During the afternoon, yours truly had somewhat ambitiously (sounds better than drunkenly) purchased an Italian version of A Room With A View  (Camera con Vista) to read, thinking that my Italian was up to it.    That way, I could experience the piquant pleasure, I thought of reading in Italian about an English writer writing about English people in Italy.  Wow, was that a mistake.  I could barely understand a word of it.    I spent 25 minutes attempting to dicypher the first page of it before joining my husband for a snooze, waking ourselves up, outrageously for another meal.

The trattoria was not quite something we were ready for.  Exhausted, sleepy, full of wine and food, the idea of another heavy meal was beginning to make me feel downcast.  The walls of the trattoria were luminous green and peppered with the occasional framed photo of the owner’s prize dog and its winning rosettes.  The Sienese love their dogs.  I half-heartedly demolished some excellent bruschette (on top of which was a long, slow-cooking tomato paste, red kidney beans and a wafer thin curl of lard – yes, my friends, you read correctly – lard).  Then I ordered a veal stew, too robust and hearty for me at this point in the day.  At this point a tidal wave of tiredness hit me and I failed to dodge it.  The stress of my Dissertation, the disgust of shorthaul travel with HorridAir, the vast and incorrigible train tracks, the endless fucking torpor of travel all built up it seemed.  I announced I was ready for bed, but Mr Bluebird said it was only 8.15pm.

Then a posh couple came and sat next to us where they chatted only occasionally to each other, on the negligent state of the lamb.  But after I had woken myself up enough to go to the loo, I returned to find Mr Bluebird deep in conversation with them regarding our pensione.  They couldn’t find anywhere inside the city walls to stay so were green with jealousy.  They were typical of the kind of English one finds in neat and thrilling Siena; the kind of well-heeled, upper middle-class traveller to whom “lunch” is a verb rather than a noun, and who spend their retirement culturally overdosing on frescos between popping in to the villas of old friends on the continent.  We got rather chatty. “Our tomatoes aren’t like this atallllll!” said the radiant wife, giddy after I’d passed over the chestnut grappa which expressed itself in two round red patches on her cheeks like fine English braeburns. And we talked about how wonderful the food was here and how at home it doesn’t just have the knack and how lovely the landscape is here and it’s not a bit like home, you know, and how good the chestnut liquer was here and Haw Haw Haw Haw she laughed. 

They tottered off to the taxi, John Lewis scarves a-flying as they poured their good selves into a waiting cab.  Strangely, the chestnut liquor had reawakened my brain who, if not quite up to partying, was certainly in the mood for a chocolate ice-cream which I ate following our trip to the gelateria.  We returned to the hotel at 10pm where Mr Bluebird tried to find Italian football on the Italian telly as he was missing his Match of the Day dreadfully.  You see.  They may produce better qualities of life, tomatoes, frescos, wines, food, climate and language but HA! their television coverage of football is still absolutely bollocks.

Tune in tomorrow for a trip to the countryside, a disagreeable encounter with the Italian bus network and the delights of Pienza…..

The Italian Job – Part 1

Oh, those three minutes.  Three minutes that should have been clawed back from sleep and three minutes for which I ought to have been awake.  Three minutes that would have meant we would have left the house three minutes earlier and not missed the only bastard National Express coach to Stansted from Golders Green for an hour.  Damn those National Express hussies.  Not only did we foolishly miss the 08:08, but the 08:28 bus missed us and didn’t even bother to show up, unless it was an invisible ghost bus driven by invisible people.  This meant that Mr Bluebird had to fork out £48 for a taxi to Stansted, bless ‘im.

On arrival at the airport, we do what we normally do.  He stands about outside drawing in huge lungfuls of Golden Virginia due to the two hours he is about to spend on board an aircraft, and I spend 50% of my holiday money at Accessorize.  HorridAir took off on time, with its limitless capacity to shout at you the entire time you’re on board : did I want to buy a scratchcard to help orphans? No.  Did I want to purchase a sandwich of unidentifiable meat at €7,00 a pop?  Don’t be absurd my good man, of course I don’t.  Did I want a bag of vodka?  Erm…no actually.  Yes, you did hear that right.  The sheer class of HorridAir.  They sell you spirits in little plastic bags.  These little plastic bags are designed to not open properly.  When you finally drag your teeth along the apparently “perforated” line, which appears to have been superglued together, the contents end up on your shirt.  This means you spend the rest of the day smelling like a cross between a Whitbreads pub and Katie Price on a night out.  Not a good look.  Mr Bluebird is nervous of aeroplanes and must consume a number of these teeny weeny bags of vodka to get through the short flight to Pisa.  He did buy me the worlds most expensive bag of mini Cheddars however.

On arrival at Pisa, the benefit of packing “just hand luggage” finally kicks in.  You just get to stroll out of the airport and into your holiday, without worrying around those 1970s carousel things, usually filled with small children jumping on and off them.   Many’s the time I’ve seen a far nicer suitcase than my own go past on those and thought “I think I’ll take that one, thank you, it’s far better than mine”.  But you’re not supposed to treat those carousels like a SwapShop, apparently, so I try not to steal other people’s luggage in airports.  At Pisa Airport, the skies are blue and trying to warm up, whilst we hop on the first of three trains to Siena.  We have to change at Pisa Centrale and Empoli, but that’s okay.  The journey goes without a hitch, unless you count the time the fascist Italian train police fined us €80,00 for not having our train tickets validated appropriately, which is a bit like trespassing in Italy. From Empoli to Siena, you find yourself slap-bang into E M Forster territory; great wide swathes of rolling hills, covered with small evergreen trees planted at regular intervals with an anal precision.  Throughout the holiday, the views of this part of Tuscany looked nothing so much as a series of paintings viewed from train windows and above the parapets of brick walls in hill towns.  They had this odd mistiness that makes you think you need to clean your sunglasses.  The panorama hangs in the air.  Then somewhere an Italian woman starts shouting very loudly and smacking a nearby child and you’re jolted back to reality.

Italy’s a bit like that.  Early morning church bells on a Sunday are accompanied by bad plumbing whilst next door takes a shower, and men stand in the street coughing up last night’s cigarette-tar.   The most beautiful of landscapes has the ugliest of trains.  You get high opera or Europe’s worst television and there doesn’t seem to be anything in between. Either way, the land is luxurious in its make-up but not in its manner.  Tuscany is hard-working land, where production is maximised and where the views of the sentimental middle-class English are considered a little daft.  Fruit trees, vegetables, crops and – once you get further south – wine – work hard here.  Not that we noticed all of that of course, because we were knackered and just sort of snoozed to Siena.

Being a medieval, walled city, the train station is built 2km to the south.  Which means my schoolgirl Italian had to work through all of its verb tables to get a taxi driver to understand that we wanted to go to the town. In the taxi, hairpin bends are taken with the usual offhand aplomb.  The entire city of Siena appears to have been built on a 45% angle.  Through the city walls, the taxi climbed up and up, narrowly missing killing approximately 20 pedestrians on the way.  I was so glad not to have made the decision to drive.  Only a native could do this without shitting themselves.  It’s alarming. If I had driven here, we would have been the only people to leave Siena screaming, in a car going backwards down a hill.   People OUGHT to be dying in the wheels of our taxi but they’re not.  They’re doing that thing that pigeons do, of sort of staring into the path of rapidly approaching traffic and sloppily turning away to escape at the last minute.  We keep on driving up into the city centre until WHAM.  Suddenly there’s the Piazza del Campo.

It’s an astonishing, assymetrical whack of medieval town planning, specifically designed in the 14th century to accommodate a series of overpriced gelaterias for visiting tourists.  This is not the real size obviously.  It’s actually bigger.  So big that twice a year, once in July and once in August, there are bareback horse races where riders zoom around the piazza three times in one minute.  It’s called “Il Palio” and it sounds utterly insane, but it’s so popular that you are advised to get there five hours in advance for a good view.  Siena is deeply entrenched in it’s regional pride (particularly against their traditional enemies, those dastardly Florentines), and competing groups of various city tribes are represented by different brightly coloured flags that hang down from walls in the main streets of the city.  The impact of seeing the square was, of course, undoubtedly wowzers.  From here it was a mere weave around high-bouffanted dog walkers until we got to our hotel.

On arrival at the gorgeous Palazzo Masi, we were met by the wonderful Daniela, who was full of great advice about where to eat and, perhaps more importantly, about where not to eat.  Her B&B was right off the Piazza del Campo and had a particularly good view from the toilet window.  After a wash and brush up we headed out for a splendid supper at <www.anticatrattorialaquila.it> which Daniela had suggested.  There’s something absurd in trying to describe great food.  It’s a sensory experience and words don’t really help, but suffice to say my husband’s Ribollita (Tuscan bread and tomato soup) followed by grilled lamb chops with lemon and garlic, and my tortelloni filled with pork and sage with a bolognese-related Tuscan sauce was so effortlessly brilliant that our stomachs wept with joy.  Loads of wine of course, and then an evening passegiata for ice cream, whereupon we saw what we thought were UFOs.

AHA.  THAT woke you up, eh?  There you were, thinking “Oh god, she’s still banging on about how the texture of the risotto brought tears to her eyes and I’m having to read this in shitty London”, and suddenly it’s all gone a bit UFO.  Bet that shocked ya, eh?  Honestly, Helena Bonham-Carter never had to put up with any of this UFO business in “A Room with a View” did she?  Just the horrid Julian Sands fopping and whimpering about like a wet blanket.  I don’t remember aliens (although Maggie Smith has goggly eyes and looks a bit like one) and I hadn’t had that much wine, so, unless I had an ice-cream overdose, I was seeing UFO-style lights moving up and over the night sky of the Piazza del Campo.

Mr Bluebird wondered if they were romantic helicopters, or perhaps speed dating for pilots, because they moved and danced around each other before passing off up into the (mothership?) sky.  Was it the Florentines?  They sure do hold a grudge, so it could be them.  But we saw they were fairly close and we followed them.  Tuscan towns are disastrously hilly.  I just hoped I wasn’t going to have some sort of random rheumatic attack there, because then I’d have to be wheeled around like an old person.  I swiftly developed Tuscan calf (more of Tuscan neck and Tuscan liver to come later in this week’s entries) as we crawled up the high cobbles to the back of the cathedral.  The lights were bigger now, and whiter.  There was a false, pale pink cardboard high arch constructed over one street, and then we turned a corner to see approximately 300 people dressed in green and orange silk flags having a light supper.  This is Tuscany, so their light supper was boar, salads, heaving bowls of spaghetti, great swathes of something involving fennel and rocket, and tables groaning with trifle.  The lights we saw were tea candles in vast white bags that were lit and sent up into the sky.   This, together with the calorific supper, was to commemorate Siena’s victory over the Florentines in 1260 at the Battle of Monteperti.  The Sienese had been under Florentine domination since 1230 when the Florentines dumped plague-infested donkey corpses and rotting faeces over their city walls.

There were songs, cheers and a gentle celebration in the traditional Italian style, in that children, adults and grandparents were all thrown in together, all wearing green and orange flags tied around their shoulders and necks.  The tourists stared agawp at this, some of which felt a bit intrusive, especially when the man next to me said in a strong Yorkshire accent “Well, it’s a bit like our warring kings of Mercia and Wessex except I think they made it up in the end, Claire!”  Slightly drunk, and full of gelato, we stared up.  The songs that were sung were mournful, as the Sienese victory was short-lived and the Florentines regained dominance soon after the Battle of Monteperti.  Around and about the celebratory dinner, small dogs were enjoying their nighttime walk, courtesy of small Italian owners, who collected their vast amount of small poos neatly in little bags whilst joining in with the singing.  An elderly, round woman shouted out of a first floor window towards her grandchildren below.  The cathedral looked like a medieval wedding cake with its soft green and baby pink shades, behind the floating tea-lights drifting slowly up in front of it into black sky, whilst at the top of the square, a small, bright turquoise van that was presumably owned by Siena’s branch of the Trotter family, drove up at great speed, parked two inches from the end of one of the dining tables and, completely dismissive of the beauty and poetry of the moment, burped diesel into everyone’s faces.  Welcome to Siena.