The problem for Siena and its surrounding hill-forted villages is that Florence, thirty miles to its immediate north, appears to have so much more to offer.
It is pretty hard to top Brunelleschi’s cathedral and the two versions of David by Donatello and Michelangelo. It’s also pretty hard to top its galaxy of starred restaurants, bijou hotels, ritzy shops, oh and the odd sensational church or museum. Moreover, you can actually fly direct to Florence (the airport is at last being rebuilt) whereas for Siena you have to fly into Pisa (EasyJet/BA) and take a couple of trains or hire a car (two hours plus) or use Florence.
Siena is justifiably proud of its Palio which happens in July and again in August and attracts crowds of 100,000 to watch a horse race lasting barely three minutes. Watered sand is layered on the cobbled stones and the event subsumes the city. It is free to watch in the middle of the Piazza del Campo though you will have to wait three or four hours in the burning heat to ensure a pole position so take lots of water, portable chairs and something to read. Of course, you could book a seat though you will have to part with 400€ for the pleasure.
For the past 500 years or so the Sienese have been slightly chippy about their Florentine counterparts. It’s hard to see why. Their consuls were rightly radical in becoming the first city to divorce church and state and it is now clear, as the brilliant exhibition at the National entitled Renaissance Siena: Art for a City in 2008 demonstrated, that she gave birth to the movement which changed the known world.
Up in the hills there are a number of wonderful villages which are understandably famous. San Gimignano stands out for its towers and grace (and white wine) but in lesser ways so do Monteriggioni, Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano. If you go in the spring, the vast open contoured fields are luscious greens but by late July the harvests have started and they are now golden deliciously brown. It’s as if they are two countries separated by a few months.
Of course, to the north east of Siena is “Chiantishire”, popularised by the late John Mortimer in his book Summer Lease published first in 1988 (there was a new edition in 2008). It was meant to express, inside the requisite murder story, the English upper middle classes propensity for buying property there and drinking the local wine. Today German, French and some Russian can also be heard in the cafes in Castellina in Chianti though the for-sale notices are also up.
But I want to draw your attention to a vineyard sitting in the shadow of Montalcino, the home of Brunello, one of the truly great red wines in the world. If you do nothing else in your life spend a day here. You will need a car to locate Il Paradiso di Frassina (www.alparidisodifrassina.it) but once there you will be spell bound.
I parked my car in the rough and walked up to the winery. There’s a bit of a slope so when I reached the entrance I was blown away by the noise coming from the rows and rows of vines. I could see tiny Bose speakers on them (there are 48 in total) acting as an entrée for Mozart’s music which has been playing there since 1999 when Carlo Cignozzi, the owner, introduced them to his virgin vines. The music loop lasts 60 hours and includes quartets, symphonies and operas.
The speakers have been deliberately placed so that the vines are exposed to high, medium and low sound intensity. Carlo has, from the outset, worked with researchers from Florence University (Agriculture & Fruit departments) and also from Pisa University (Entomology). His hunch is that plants can feel sound and that this stimulates growth and so far this has proved to be the case: his harvest yields have outstripped those of his neighbours.
Of course it begs lots of questions – why Mozart why not Verdi, Beethoven, Miles Davis or the Beatles? There must be Ph.D students clamouring to find out. Goodness maybe that’s what I should do in my retirement – study music and drinking whilst staying in Siena: sounds like the perfect antidote.
You will want to take in Montalcino too and sit in one of its caves and sup the wine with some local cheese or ham. Jack, my son, asked for a bottle of Brunello for his eighteenth birthday, not any old bottle, but one from the year of his birth in 1992. I went to every shop to sip (there are some hardships in life) and to ask if they had one. They said it was a bad year and that it wasn’t worth drinking. Eventually I found a single bottle in an Enoteca, a wine shop to you and me, within Fortezza, its large and dominating castle. I parted with 202€ and all my senses. I wish he’d hurry up and drink the damn thing.
It has become harder to find Brunello (you have to wait five years anyway) or its younger sibling, Rosso di Montalcino (an up-market version of a Beaujolais) in the UK. The Italians like the French like their own wines but more recently so do the Chinese and some vineyards have been selling upwards of 40% to them. I suppose quaffing Brunello in Beijing is their version of a “Champagne Communist”…..maybe not.
If you want to taste Carlo’s wines (obviously it helps to have Mozart on in the background) look out for his Brunello di Montalcino: Il Paradiso di Frassina (he does about 14,000 bottles p.a.) but if that hurts your pocket (you don’t have to drink them all at once) try his Maremma Toscana Rosso (6-8000 bottles) or his S.Antimo Rosso (10,000 bottles). You can order directly from the vineyard. They are easily recognisable as the wine labels have music signatures.
Finally, take some time out to pop down the road from Montalcino to the spectacularly sited church of Sant’ Antimo and hear the Augustinian monks sing Gregorian chant at mass on a Saturday or Sunday morning. The building itself is to die for. The space inside the church combined with the light from the windows coupled with the chanting is the most moving of experiences. It’s as though God has lived there for a thousand years.
Derek Wyatt is a former MP; he chairs Trinity Hospice