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…..