After a testing day driving the very narrow and winding back roads of Tuscany, plunging into Siena during the afternoon peak hour is akin to sticking one’s hand into a blender while it is on. The locals and tourists are all trying to escape the city at the same time and in a word, it’s chaos.
I had been warned about driving in Italy, but I came up with a coping mechanism that enabled me to get around like a local. When driving in Italy and faced with a choice, all one has to do is ask oneself the question, “what would a selfish person do?” and then go ahead and do it as though you had all the right in the world and owned the road. Any display of driving courtesy or consideration will only throw the locals into confusion and probably cause an accident. Don’t indicate, don’t give way, don’t stop at pedestrian crossings, just drive like a selfish bastard and you’ll be okay. This might sound like hyperbole but I’m not kidding, and it pays to assume that everyone else will drive that way, because it makes things much more predictable and therefore safer.
Feeling like a salmon swimming upstream as I circuited the city a few times looking for parking prepared me for when we finally left the car and started walking into the old part of the city. It was as though the driving was merely the first gauntlet through which we had to pass. The second was heading in the opposite direction to the streaming crowds leaving the city before nightfall. We saw large (probably the size that would fit into a tour bus) flocks of sunbaked and footsore tour groups, either bedecked with matching green scarves or being herded along by their flag-wielding shepherds.
On we swam upstream until we finally reached the world-famous Campo and I have to admit, I was blown away while feeling an uncontrollable urge to spawn. It really is beautiful, and no wonder all those people wanted to have a look at it. Without trying to be disingenuous, I suppose it is the height of chutzpah to expect that I would have such an amazing place just for us two.
The first thing that struck me about the Campo in Siena, was that it wasn’t flat, which might not sound like too great a concern until one realises that the locals race horses around the circumference of the piazza during the Palio. I have to be honest, the Palio is something I would love to see, even though it would cost a small fortune for decent accommodation at that time and to secure a good vantage point. Why I’d even brave the insane crowds that would go to such an event!
As with most famous tourist attractions, the Campo in Siena is surrounded by numerous eateries and in Italy this unfortunately means a plethora of pizza parlours. I am so over pizzas, and like I’m talkin’ 35 years over them. I spent a summer making them and even though I consider myself a pizza connisseur I wouldn’t care if I never ate another one.
By the time we arrived at the Campo, both our nerves were quite frazzled and poor old Engogirl was looking a bit down-spirited. So when I asked her what she wanted to eat and she replied ‘pizza’, there was no way I could deny her such a small thing. So we sat at the first pizza place we came to and she ordered a Montanga pizza and I ordered a tuna salad. Sitting at a nearby table was a cool-looking elderly couple drinking some bright orange drinks with ice in large wine glasses. The ice-cold bright orange drinks seemed to know my name and they called to me, so I gestured to the waiter to come over, and asked him what they were. He replied “spritzers”. Now I always thought that a spritzer was just some generic term for a wine cocktail with something fizzy in it, but apparently in northern Italy it is a combination of Aperol (a milder-flavoured version of the very nasty Campari) and Prosecco. I have to say that considering my mental state at the time, the delivered “spritzers” were the perfect antidote.
When our meal arrived, the sun had started to go down and the sky turned a beautiful deep blue and the crowds had thinned right out. No longer were there clumps of locals shooting the breeze as tourists took photographs of each other with the Palazzo Pubblico behind.
Much to my surprise, the salad that I ordered was fantastic, and Engogirl’s pizza was divine. I’ve never been a fan of thin-crust pizzas, as I feel that they are a failure of technique. Any idiot can make a thin crust pizza by letting ordinary pizza dough dry out during the second rising. Talk about selling a defect as an advantage…sheesh! But I digress, the pizza’s flavours were just amazing. Arugula, wild mushrooms (which are in season at the moment) and proscuitto with a mozzarella that was unlike any that I’d ever tasted before. It all tasted so rich and buttery. It was the best pizza I’d ever tasted.
The Americans may have invented the pizza but I think it’s been perfected in Siena.
By the time we had finished dinner the sky had turned black and the piazza was almost deserted except for a few small groups of back-packers sitting around sharing wine.
As I looked at the backpackers I couldn’t help but remember my times in the early eighties when I hitchhiked through Europe. I was glad that I travelled back then, the way how I did, because just about any kind of travel is better than no travel at all. But I have to admit, I’m really loving the way how I’ve been travelling lately.
Back when I was younger I travelled with little or no money and I often felt that I was on the outside looking in, like some hungry dog with its nose pressed up against the glass of a butcher’s shop window. How things have changed, now I’m on the inside and my biggest problem is not to eat and drink too much!