Treasures of Tuscany

Travel Talk

Race course at Piazza del Campo, SienaI've a soft spot for Siena.  Ever since that August day, some years ago, when we went there specifically to film its historic horse race, only for it to be rained off. 

It could have been a disaster but, this being Italy, it became a party.  As the heavens opened, enterprising hustlers sold transparent, hooded capes and, within a few minutes, the Campo was thronged with people wearing what looked like giant condoms.  And drowning their disappointment with much wine.  We filmed that instead, but it never made the cut. 

Last month I once more walked the narrow streets fringing that famous square as a local guide told our group about the city's history, pausing to point out the headquarters of the world's oldest bank.  The Banca Monte dei Paschi, she explained, was founded in 1472 – "… and, as you say in English, is 'still going strong' …" 

Oops.  Back in London a few days later I read that the bank had spectacularly failed a "stress test", needed to find 2.1 billion Euros of extra capital, and had its shares suspended. 

Piazza del Campo, SienaThe Italians, however, will not be unduly upset by this economic blow.  They will, in the main, continue to avoid paying much of their taxes, treat the politicians of Rome and Brussels with equal contempt, and greet whatever comes along with a shrug of the shoulders, an occasional strike or demonstration – and a glass of wine. 

Italy has experienced every type of government – and every type of crisis you can name – down the centuries.  As far as Siena is concerned, the problems of the world's oldest bank are of less importance than which of its 17 districts wins the next horse race and gets to keep the Palio – the banner which gives the race its name. 

Italians know how to enjoy themselves in the face of adversity – and are one of the reasons why the bureaucrats and politicians will never achieve their dream of a compliant and homogeneous Europe.  Italians don't do homogeneous.  They do flamboyant.  

This is a nation of individuals with a love of life as it is, not as the bean-counters would like it to be.  Cities like Siena are street theatre writ large.  The cliche about "sitting and watching the world go by" was probably invented in Italy by some travel hack sitting at a pavement cafe with a hangover and an empty notebook.  Quite possibly me. 

Banchi di Spra, SienaIn Siena we took our lunch break in the smart coffee shop Nannini, in the via Banchi di Sopra.  The coffee was excellent, as was the mint tea, and the pastries – ricciarelli, cavalucci, cantucci, panforte – irresistible.  The place was buzzing and our waitress was a dead ringer for Julia

Roberts – but without the superfluous teeth.

It was the same in Florence at "Le Tre Comari" snack bar in Via Lambertesca, a few paces from the Ponte Vecchio.  As nearby shops closed, their owners wandered in and sat down without a word.  Their "usual" was brought to them, for they probably lunched there every working day and saved their conversation with the staff for important things like gossip.

FlorenceThe lady in my life had never been to Siena or Florence, and found them fascinating.  Heavy on history and famous names and a little hard on the feet.   But fascinating.  I'm sure she wants to return.  As do I.

We were in Tuscany for just eight days, staying in a three-star hotel called Villa Ricci in Chianciano Terme with two dozen others of similar tastes and temperament and age.  The tour firm (Travelsphere) calls the holiday "Treasures of Tuscany", and it did, indeed, take us to many of those treasures.  I expect they'll be doing the same in 2015.  I certainly hope so.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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