We weren’t supposed to go to Siena; not originally. When we mapped out our trip, the plan was to stay in Monterosso for three nights; sort of an intermission in which we could catch our breath. But I accidentally booked our hotel for only two nights. Why? Because they write out the dates differently in Italy (e.g. July 11, 2015 is 11/7/15 instead of 7/11/15).
We weighed our options about where to go. We considered Milan, Pisa, or making the short trip to another village in the Cinque Terre. Ultimately, we landed on Siena. My foreign study trip visited it one afternoon and I remembered it being a fairly pleasant place. Late in the game—right before we left, in fact—we decided that we would take a winery tour at Castel di Pugna.
The trip to the winery was not a smooth one. Bus confusion, a boneheaded comment on my behalf, and a vicious half mile climb made me wish that I had not made my booking mistake. We finally arrived at the hill’s summit a few minutes late for our tour. Our guide greeted us and, seeing our red and tired faces, kindly offered us some water.
Once we rested a few minutes, we went back outside and took in our surroundings. We were on top of a hill overlooking the gorgeous Tuscan countryside. You could see Siena in one directions and then rolling hills, charming villas, and vineyards all around. We got off to a rough start but we rallied from there.
Our tour guide was great. Castel di Pugna has been around since at least the 12th Century and was one of three castles that stood between Siena and their bitter enemies in Florence. When Siena saw one of these castles under attack, they knew to close their city gates so that the Florentines could not get in. In the 13th Century, the castle was burnt to the ground and subsequently rebuilt. The family of this castle has been making wine since near the beginning.
EA, our tourguide, and I walked around the grounds. She showed us the olive trees, the vineyards, where the wine is pressed, and the cellar in which it is stored. We also went down into the original foundation of the house: an over 700 year old basement in which the wine was originally kept. It was all quite educational and interesting. Being the only ones on the tour, we got to ask questions and not feel like we were being herded around like sheep.
We then sat down in a room and got to sample three of their wines—Chianti Collisensi, Chianti Superiore, and Castelpugna—as well as bruschetta with the olive oil they produce plus local meats, cheeses, and honey. It was all pretty fantastic. EA and I kept saying to one another, “I’m really glad we did this.” When we were finished our guide said that we could stay there as long as we wanted. She had to go help with a dinner at the villa so we just needed to close the door. I honestly think we could have unrolled sleeping bags and stayed there the night.
After skidding back down the hill, we caught the bus back to Siena. Once back in town, we strolled through the city to Il Campo. Il Campo is a massive square in which twice a year, the city hosts a stupid dangerous but awesome-sounding horse race called the Palio. Hold on, the Palio deserves its own paragraph.
In the Palio, ten of the seventeen city wards (a lottery decides the competitors) race one another for glory. Each ward has its own mascot and they range from the typical (Aquila is repped by the eagle) to the bizarrely awesome (Istrice is the Crested Porcupine) The best way I can explain it to southern readers is: Take the passion around high school football. Now imagine that there were only two games played a year. Except every team plays in those games. And there are hundreds of years of rivalry between everyone. Oh, and the ward that hasn't won a Palio for the most years is called "the Grandmother." In the race, riders frequently get thrown off on hairpin turns, yet a horse can still win the race without its rider. It sounds crazy and possibly unethical. It also sounds kind of amazing.
Back to our day: Il Campo was bustling with activity. Diners in outdoor cafes were chatting along the perimeter. Tourists were snapping pictures. Many were just sitting out in the square and enjoying the early evening. It was lovely; peaceful yet alive with energy.
And then I remembered something about that square in Siena. We came there one afternoon after my several miserable days in Florence. When we got to Siena, the sun cracked through the clouds for the first time in what seemed like forever. We sat in that same square and I remember kids running around, laughing, and playing in the sun. It had been a rough set of days, but I remember thinking to myself, “You know what? Things are going to be okay.”
As the memories came flooding back, I told that story to EA. I smiled. Coming to Siena was not part of the plan, but I’m grateful that we came here. I’m grateful that I remembered that afternoon over a decade ago. I’m grateful that I got to bring EA to that place and tell her that story. It is a small matter, a blip in my life’s story. But it’s a good memory and those are always welcome. It was nice to add new memories on this happy accident of a trip.