Tuesday, July 30, 2013


After the thrills and spills of three weeks in Biarritz, it was time to get back on the road. Having surfed almost every day of the trip, I have to admit I was quietly relieved at the thought of a day trapped in an air conditioned car en route to Italy. I like to think my surf technique has improved a little, and I got off relatively lightly on the injuries front with just a couple of friction burns from the board and half a dozen criss cross cuts on my right foot from landing too close to a submerged rock. Oh and a suspected broken toe.

Next stop Siena and a striking contrast to the laidback West Coast beach vibe. After a July spent loafing around in shorts and flip flops, Siena is a chance to flaunt some of the many shoes I lugged along (in their own case, of course) this being Italy. There is a well known rivalry between Siena and her Tuscan sister Florence and visitors tend to fall in love with one or the other but not both. I have to say I'm finding it hard to choose. While Florence has more of a Renaissance vibe and is stuffed full of art everywhere you look, in Siena, it is all about the architecture and the feel is a lot more Gothic. It's small, intimate and a feast for the eyes if you love buildings as much as Handyman and I do.

We are staying in a converted farm on a hill just outside the old city walls, and Antonio, whose family have been here for generations, gave us three recommendations for restaurants to try. As this part of the trip is all about food, we have tried them all. Osteria il Carroccio was just like being at a family house for dinner, with one of the waitresses serving as she balanced her toddler on her hip. Almost every table was taken but they fitted us in by the kitchen. I ordered the ribollita (Tuscan vegetable and bean soup) and lasagnette (a mini lasagne?) filled with spinach and ricotta. Both delicious. Handyman had pasta in tomato and salami to start (am I alone in finding it strange to have pasta as a starter?) followed by chicken and mushroom casserole. He also gave his choices the thumbs up. We shared broad beans in tomato and garlic which, when they arrived, did a very good impression of looking just like Heinz baked beans but they tasted amazing.

Last night we went to his second recommendation Taverna di Cecco, on a quiet side street just before you reach the main square, Piazza del Campo. While Gianni the owner ran in and out greeting regulars - it was encouraging that every customer apart from us and an American couple who were being shown the sights by their Siena based student son was Italian - the waiter arrived with menus and a glass of perfectly chilled prosecco on the house. This is what I would do if I ran a restaurant. It is an instant pleaser and puts you in a great mood. I had crostini porcini - so bang went the no bread rule - followed by a lovely light risotto alla verdure made with zucchini, peas and sweet roasted onions, while Handyman opted for a caprese followed by perfectly pink lamp chops on a bed of salad. We drank Villa Antinori, a crisp and fruity white from Florence (I have just bought several bottles at the local supermarket for €6 a bottle). A guitarist turned up to serenade his friends at the next table while we discussed the derelict Hotel la Toscana opposite. By the end of supper, we were smitten, had totally remodelled it and were discussing how much we could buy it for.

Lunch today was at Antonio's third pick, Trattoria Papei in the beautiful market square. Most of the menus here are meaty, with wild boar, lamb and duck among the most common dishes. In Italy, if you are more than 20 minutes inland, it is very difficult to get fish or seafood, which makes sense really. Handyman ordered antipasti and I had the bruschetta pomodoro from his plate which was yum. He had cold cuts and minced beef spleen which he compared to cat sick and which made me very relieved to be a veggie. I am a bit pasta-ed out, all that surfing is a distant memory, so my main was chosen from side dishes of peperonata (roasted peppers in tomato and garlic) and verdure al forno (simple roasted vegetables) and Chuppa Chups had lamb chops (again) served with stewed potatoes, which he declared delicious. The dessert - torta della nonna - or Granny's tart, was unreal. Almond infused pastry filled with tangy lemon cream, baked and topped with whole toasted almonds, dusted in icing sugar. I almost wanted to go and kiss Nonna, who was sitting on the terrace surveying the action. Four orange liqueurs later (I passed mine to Handyman, who drank it, only for the waiter to arrive with two more, which he also had to drink) we staggered off in search of a lounger by the pool.

Come to Siena for the wonderful architecture, the friendly locals and the stunning scenery and of course the food as well as Il Palio, the crazy horse race that takes place every summer in Il Campo. San Gimignano is also well worth a visit, although the myriad of tourist shops were a little too Saint-Paul de Vence for me. We sat out a thunderstorm in La Mangiatoia where yet another historic lunch was consumed. Borgo Grandaie is a great base, with a delicious breakfast served on the terrace, and it's worth staying here just to pick Antonio's brain for Siena's best fare. After three nights here, we are on the move tomorrow, and heading for another personal recommendation, Promontorio del Gargano on the south east coast with a pit stop in Montepulciano en route. Viva la dolce vita.