Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"Remember Montaperti!" (Part 1)

We got out of Venice after a few days, and by then my pessimism about the place had evaporated somewhat, after being treated to a night at the opera and some wonderful, simply magnificent museums of art. (I'm still not keen on its cops, though.)

The T.P. was excited to be on our way to Siena to meet her sister Narelle, whom she hadn't seen for a couple of years. Narelle is a dramatic soprano who lives in Germany and can sing a bit (not really - there is still some dispute in the family over whether it was she who shattered every bit of glassware in her parents' house at the age of thirteen.... or whether it was her mother hahaha - sorry, mother-in-law in-joke).

From Florence, we boarded a rattle-trap old train that reminded me of the state of the art of the Australian rail system (in Germany a couple of weeks later I had cause to wonder at the stupidity, carelessness and sheer blundering incompetence of our political masters down under, as I rode in a sumptuous express at 250 kilometres per hour, whisper quiet and vibration-free), and pulled into Siena a couple of hours later. We walked through the gates of the old city, high on the hill, and my jaw hit the ground.

Anything one can say about Siena is an understatement. It is grand, on a scale of grandness that 
invites comparisons to other cities in the same way you might compare the intellects of Richard Dawkins and Kent Hovind. It is architecture on acid - three- and four-story stone buildings of exquisite design crowd narrow, zig-zagging cobbled streets. Gigantic, elaborate timber doors open onto dim courtyards, where water can be heard trickling into sculpted ponds. These are the residences built from about the eleventh century onwards - the houses of the nobles, and it seems that almost every citizen of Siena in those times must have been a noble, because there is virtually not one house that is not ravishing in its grandiosity and architectural brilliance.

Our room at the penzione was on the fourth floor. As usual, I dragged two heavily-laden packs - realising, at last, that the T.P.'s shopping exploits in Venice had been designed with one sole purpose: to induce a giant myocardial infarction in me - up a ridiculously narrow staircase, alighting on the top landing to see Narelle and my assassin in a cheery embrace. I hugged Narelle - it had been about fifteen years since I'd seen her - and collapsed on a lounge demanding beer, pronto. There was none.

Like every other place in Siena, our quarters were - literally - a work of art. Frescoes of saints and angels adorned the bedroom ceilings, and the shutters opened onto a panorama of utter gorgeousness. I dived into a shower recess built by a sadistic midget, and with many contortions managed to wash off the accumulated sweat from our ten-mile hike up the mountain weighed down with the contents of the Venetian Treasury.

Narelle, who was familiar with Siena, and who also speaks a fairly good brand of Italian, was the perfect guide. We wandered down the street, around a few corners, and my jaw, which was still flapping noisily against my chest, shot arrow-like to the street. We had reached the Piazza del Campo.

If there is a better-realised city square in the world I want to see it now. The Campo is as splendid an urban space as you could wish for, and to think it was pretty-much complete by the thirteenth century. Paved in red brick, its seashell shape is dominated by the Torre del Mangia, a tower that reaches majestically to the sky. Great mansions circumnavigate this vast, open and airy space. Hundreds of people were just sitting around it, at tables outside the myriad of restaurants at street level, or just plonked on the brick paving itself, eating gelati or pizza and drinking wine and beer. It was coming on evening, and the deepening sky contrasted with the reds and creams of the buildings in a sight I won't forget in a hurry. It was spectacular (and that's just another understatement.)

We ate pizza and drank beer, and I suddenly realised that the square, although populated by plenty of tourists, was also the haunt of the locals themselves. And why wouldn't you come here of an evening if you lived in town? It was cool and inviting - everything you needed was within thirty seconds' walk, and the sights and sounds of musicians playing, dancers twirling, and people just generally having a pleasant time made you want to stay well into the night. I'm not a city person, but I could live here, I thought. be continued


Mark Jones said...

Sounds (un)divine!

Richard Pourau said...

Great story Laurie. I could read your incessantly amusing anecdotes indefinitely. I must peruse your past offerings to discover other such literary gems.

phil said...

There's something about European town squares that Aussie architects will never be able to repliacte, or even approximate.

Maybe it's the lived-in-ness.

Laurie said...

It's not even that, Phil - Australian architects have never cottoned onto the idea that city spaces can be community spaces as well. Everything they try to do ends up in a faux pace anyway, because citizens are discouraged from using their cities for living in. They're places you go to to serve the boss, then you get out. That's why Sydney is a ghost town after 7 pm.