Grand Hotel Continental proved the ideal base for our first visit to Siena, which happened to be just a few days after Il Palio, the 700-year-old world famous horse race (lasting a mere 2 minutes) held in the city twice a year in honour of the Virgin Mary and attracting around 20,000 tourists who make a pilgrimage to see it. We decided to avoid this festival, feeling that the city would be easier to explore when the masses had departed, for like every nationality, we tend to complain when there are too many tourists – not least when we are tourists ourselves. Oh to escape the sound of your own native tongue for a few days of a different language and culture, not to mention the paltry attempts at conversation with the locals.
Arriving in Siena after a pleasant two-hour British Airways flight from London City Airport, followed by a straightforward 75-minute drive from Florence airport in an Avis hire car, the Grand Hotel’s porters immediately rushed to assist with luggage and parking, and both reception and concierge staff were incredibly friendly and informative from beginning to end. The fact that the hotel is located on a main thoroughfare within the historical centre enabled us to get our bearings right away and thankfully most of the city, now a World Heritage Site, is pedestrianised. The hire car can still come in handy if you’re planning to explore the nearby towns of Monteriggioni or San Gimignano, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the railway station is well connected to many Italian cities if you just want to come to Siena and stay put.
Having visited Florence almost a dozen times, the quainter charms of the medieval Siena were a revelation as we proceeded to make our way up the steep and corridor-like streets which wind themselves around Piazza del Campo like an intricate but beautiful spider’s web, and benefiting from being decorated with flags due to the recent festivities. Photogenic from practically every angle, it’s a city compact enough to get to the heart of within a few days, and the strong café culture makes exploring remarkably relaxing, as illustrated by the number of sightseers with a Chianti in their hand by noon.
Grand Hotel Continental, Siena’s only five star hotel, is in itself something of a landmark having been built in the 17th century as a wedding gift from Pope Alexander VII to his niece, Olimpia, on her marriage, and then known as the Palazzo Gori Pannilini. It’s aristocratic origins are evident, with many of the hotel’s 51 rooms and suites featuring original and exuberant frescoes, priceless artworks and antiques, and having been turned into a hotel in the late 1800s, Magherita di Savoia (the Queen of Italy) was a guest on several occasions. Our spacious ‘Royal Double’ boasted wonderful views of the city, particularly spectacular at sunset. Now owned by Niquesa Hotels and Residences, it’s a shame guests don’t seem to be using the elaborate first floor ballroom, the Salone delle Feste, which is undoubtedly the most impressive room of the hotel but is rather neglected in between being hired for weddings and celebrations. I may have ideas above my station, but I fancied the idea of enjoying a cocktail in this elaborate gilded room with precious trompe-l’œil and Murano glass chandeliers.
The hotel’s restaurant and wine bar SaporDivino, is located in what was the former courtyard of the hotel, now a light and spacious atrium dominated by the glass elevators and a large wall clock. Despite being the only diners and feeling a lack of ambiance, the food was extremely well prepared and an elegant take on classic Tuscan cuisine; from a punchy appetizer of Pecorino cheese mousse with caramelized pears, seaside honey and walnuts, to a main course of tender lamb loin with a tomato crust, black olives, wilted spinach and tarragon zabaglione. For dessert we shared a highly successful chocolate fondant, complete with an oozing middle. As you’d expect, the comprehensive wine list highlighted Tuscany’s strong wine-producing heritage and, for weary travellers it’s always good to know that you don’t have to venture out in order to dine well.
When you have a chance to explore more humble Tuscan fare, seek out a bakery that sells fresh Ricciarelli; a soft diamond shaped almond biscuit dusted in copious amounts of icing sugar which are a local Sienese speciality. You’ll find the freshly prepared ones so much softer than the boxed examples available in all the touristy gift shops, (although these are fine for taking home) and could anything be nicer than purchasing a few of the little darlings for elevenses, grabbing a takeaway espresso and sitting on the steps of the sublime Duomo di Siena whilst watching the world go by?
The midday heat demanded we take shelter inside the cathedral, and, as one of the most renowned examples in Europe, I’m very glad we did. Originating from medieval times, its white and green marble interior reflects the striking exterior and, lined with exquisite frescoes, sculpture, floor mosaics and stained glass, is an unmissable place to pause a while. This summer (July-Sept) La Divina Bellezza – Discovering Siena, launched as a nightly event aiming to inform visitors about the city’s fascinating history and landmarks through a half hour multimedia video projected onto the Duomo.
After a boozy lunch at Enoteca I Terzi the first day, we opted for a casual yet delicious snack at the food hall, Consorzio agrario (Via Giuseppe Pianigiani) the next. Just a stone’s throw from the hotel, their takeaway bakery counter sell slices of homemade pizza with a variety of tempting toppings, and when you taste the quality of the dough, you understand why it’s a popular venue with local business men and women who are happy to eat standing at one of the benches provided for the purpose. One look around the store made me wish I’d brought an empty suitcase in order to stock up on the quality dried pasta (in shapes we don’t get back home), decadent truffle pasta sauces, Tuscan olive oil and enough Chianti Classico and Vernaccia di San Gimignano to sink a small cruise liner.
On our last night we dined at Osteria Le Logge, a renowned restaurant established by the late winemaker Gianni Brunelli which blends highly modern and innovative fine dining food with classic Sienese flavour pairings, all within a relaxed and traditional trattoria setting, with piped in jazz creating the perfect atmosphere. With a tasting menu showcasing organic and local ingredients, the fare couldn’t have been more different from your typical hearty Italian cuisine; sweet carrot soup with creamy whipped sheeps cheese, beetroot and spring onions, followed by the freshest anchovies I’ve ever tasted with cucumbers and a caper mayonaise, and then an extremely posh panzanella with lobster. The single ricotta ravioli featured the finest pasta ever seen and was accompanied by an intense hazelnut puree, fresh green pistachios and shaved truffle. The main was an unctuous beef cheek with mushrooms and a licquorice and Brunelli wine jus, but sadly the dessert of apricot baked custard, although a great idea, was slightly over cooked.
Whilst the cooking techniques at Osteria Le Logge are astonishingly refined for the most part, my only gripe would be that, whereas in London the salt and pepper generally remain inanimate objects on the table and the chef would most likely ask you to leave the restaurant for tampering with his dishes, we found that the seasoning was (perhaps intentionally) light, and guiltily admit that we enjoyed everything much more when we had adjusted each course to our taste. Regardless of this, we will certainly return when we next visit the city as it’s by far the most interesting and ground-breaking dining experience you are likely to find here. Whilst it had been an epic meal lasting several hours, for such a small city there is a real buzz in the centre well past midnight during the summer months, allowing us to enjoy a final toast (or two) to our all too brief sojourn in Siena.
Grand Hotel Continental, Banchi di Sopra, 85, 53100 Siena SI, Italy. For more information and reservations visit the website.
Avis 3 day car hire from £47 from Florence Airport. For more information and booking visit the website.
British Airways flies direct to Florence from London City Airport and London Gatwick. For more information including pricing and times see the website.