A travel experience is never complete without a commentary on food. Whether it be “assagie di pizza” (pizza tastings) or a full complement of Antipasti, Primi e Secondi, Italians base their whole day’s existence around eating good food, both for sustenance and for the sheer enjoyment of their local and seasonal produce.
During our four days in Siena, we experienced a variety of local Tuscan specialties. The most significant was our invitational dinner for the Palio win – La Contrada de Valdimontone. Set under the Tuscan stars overlooking the Sienese old town, long trestle tables seating twenty were filled with chattering Sienese partaking in their regional red and white wines. Our first course was hot wild boar bolognaise pasta which our young travelers wolfed down. The main meal, again the regional specialty of marinated wild boar with a hint of garlic served with creamed spinach and small baked potatoes, was more of a challenge for the young ‘uns.
We organized a special dinner for our last night in Siena to further taste the local specialties. We negotiated a price for our twenty-two travelers of 15€ pp. Abundant platters kept arriving at each table – antipasti of local prosciutto, dolce and salato, salami, cottechini, talegio cheese, tomato bruschetta, radicchio bruschetta served with garlic pizzette. Huge bowls of mixed salad – butter lettuce, red radicchio, cherry tomatoes, local small black olives were placed alongside. Bottles of extra virgin fruity olive oil and balsamic vinegar – in a pump bottle – which our young charges especially found curious, were readily available. Eight large pizzas followed. There was an audible groan as these arrived, however, when we next checked only three slices remained. The consensus was that pizza here was way better than our Aussie attempts!
Peaches were another delight which we did not expect and needless to say, have voraciously consumed!
Il Palio – La Contrada di Valdimontone
Siena is known also for its yearly and ancient horse race il Palio. Today we were very privileged to visit the winning team for 2012 “the rams” or “il Monton”. Their own museum which highlights their costumes and winning “drapadons” or murals is a step back in time.
I guess I have watched the flag throwing ceremony and the unusual horse race around the “Campo” on television but never really understood its significance. To understand this, one must first understand the division of the old town and the ancient “contradas”. There are seventeen contradas. One is born into a Contrada and remains within it for life. Some of the animal symbols and plaques are, the Ram, the Snail, the Giraffe, the Owl, the Shell to name a few. Each have their distinctive color combinations – a bit like footy teams!
The race is held every year in July and August and the winning team’s Mural must include an image of the Feast of the Assumption in the top quarter of the mural. The July win depicts the half bust of the Madonna while the August winner depicts her entire image. Given that the first race was run on 15 August, 1637, it had a vast history. Check it out the photos.
The museum is housed in a deconsecrated church still resplendent with giant murals and immaculately curated. We compared the “Rams” riding costumes over the ages and a replica of the nineteen team members. This passion for their colours and history rivals that of our own AFL. Many of our group also want to join in the passion by getting some colours of the Montone. The preservation of these artifacts is inspiring and very noble.
Tonight we are invited to the celebration dinner – one of many post race celebrations that have been held since they last won in 1990. Apparently men walk around with dummies in their mouth to show they are reborn in the Contrada – likely to take off in Aussie – but you never know.
Last day in Rome and on our way to Siena
Cafe Greco – within fifty metres of the Spanish Steps one can find the very special, secluded and plush cafe. Bearing the date 1725 it boasts to be the meeting place of many poets, Lord Byron and Keats to name a few. Two coffees and two cannoli cost us more than two main meals but it was worth it! We bid farewell to Rome and make our way by private bus to Siena via Orvieto.
Day 4 Orvieto and Siena
Our private coach gently transported us through green rolling hills and countryside skirted by vineyards. Our local driver informed us that the harvest would be next week and s bumper crop would be expected.
Orvieto has a population of 22000 and is perched on a plateau. A funicular rail takes one to the top. This medieval town is known for its magnificent Cathedral – one of the most beautiful in Italy. Its construction was begun in1290 and took three hundred years to complete! The architecture is Romanesque and gothic. The front of the cathedral is really its drawcard with its fine mosaic work.
We are now in Sienna for four days. Most of our rooms face the terra cotta roofed terrace houses and each morning the bells of St Catherine right next door awaken us at 7am.