Tuscany in Winter Brings Shivers of Delight

By Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times

SIENA, Italy ~ I was feeling lucky. That was my excuse for going to Siena in winter, when Tuscany is generally cold and rainy.

But rules were made to be broken in Italy, I’ve found. In Rome, you can wake up on a winter morning with rain beating on the window, bundle up and go outside and find yourself sweating, wishing you had sunglasses instead of an umbrella.

So when my sister, Martha, came to visit in February, I took a gamble by planning a driving tour through southern Tuscany in the low season. Neither of us had ever been to Siena, about 150 miles north of Rome. And I wanted to see the Tuscan countryside, vineyards and hill towns, the model for paradise in paintings by 14th- and 15th-century Sienese masters.

Traveling in the off-season is a tried-and-true tactic for saving money. During winter in Europe (January, February, March), air fares are bargains and hotel prices are cut by as much as 30 percent.

Winter is concert, ballet and opera season. Crowds are smaller, so travelers stand a good chance of meeting locals and spending quality time at usually packed tourist attractions.

Of course, some restaurants, shops and attractions are closed in winter, and you can’t walk outside without 10 extra pounds of clothing.

But in my heart, I believed the gods would smile on two sisters with the temerity to toot around Tuscany in February.

Once we drove out of town onto the A1 Autostrada heading north, I pointed out pines along the ridges around Rome, marshes by the Tiber River and snowcapped mountains to the east.

In an hour, we crossed from Lazio to Umbria and then into Tuscany, which occupies what is considered the fairest part of the Italian peninsula, south of Florence and west of the Apennine Mountains. At that moment, however, the fabled hills of Tuscany were shrouded in storm clouds.

A dual-lane highway took us west from the autostrada to Siena and a maze of one-way streets leading into the gated old town.

Siena was the first European city to ban cars and mandate a color scheme consonant with architectural tradition, preserving the historic center, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Etruscan archaeological remains suggest that the city was founded at least as early as Rome. But Siena is one of the most splendidly intact Gothic cities in Europe. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it competed for power with Florence and its banks propped up cash-strapped popes and kings. Siena’s Monte dei Paschi bank, which opened in 1472, continues to underwrite civic projects that give the town of about 60,000 an air of prosperity and sophistication.

Siena is a red-brick beehive built across three steep hills. Martha and I checked into the Palazzo Ravizza, a small hotel above the city walls. Our well-heated rooms had heavy, old-fashioned furniture and windows overlooking the garden whose miniature orange trees were covered in protective plastic.

In a spitting rain, Martha and I climbed to the cathedral. The building’s famous western facade of black and white marble was encrusted with saints and angels. I thought of other Gothic churches I had admired in Europe — Westminster Abbey and Chartres Cathedral — but they were barnyard ducks next to this Sienese swan, I decided.

Wandering deeper into town, we emerged into Siena’s shell-shaped “campo.” It’s paved in brick, and native son Jacopo della Quercia’s carved 15th-century Fountain of Joy is embedded near the crest of the slope, facing the campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico.

We had tea and “panforte,” a Sienese fruitcake too thick to cut with a fork, at a cafe on the campo. With the campo virtually empty and our boots ringing eerily on slick stones, we visited the museum in the Palazzo Pubblico. It was built around 1300 and decorated by Italy’s best Gothic painters to exalt Siena’s civic and religious spirit.

We had the gallery to ourselves, including its prize, Simone Martini’s Maesta, a group portrait of the Virgin Mary surrounded by saints. The Madonna is much more than Siena’s patroness. She is its personal protector and divine governor who, according to legends, ignores the prayers of those who oppress the weak.

Next door in the meeting room of the Council of Nine, a group of oligarchs who governed the city in its heyday from 1289 to 1355, we found Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government, three walls of paintings that portray how a city-state prospers or descends into chaos, depending on its rulers. The details of daily life in the Middle Ages are vivid and absorbing, especially those in the good government panels showing a thriving land with sowers, threshers and a peasant leading a fat pig to market. That, as it turned out, was about as much of the fair Tuscan countryside as we would see on the trip.

Both mornings at our hotel, I jumped out of bed, ran to the window and threw open the curtains, but a winter rain front overshadowed Siena the way Florence did in the 16th century.

Unlike bad government, foul weather sometimes has benefits, in this case focusing our attention on the artistic treasures in Siena’s museums, many moved there from outdoor locations.

We spent hours in the medieval pilgrims’ hospice Santa Maria della Scala, the Pinacoteca art museum, the Duomo Museum and, of course, the Duomo itself, a cathedral and artistic repository that, to my mind, rivals the Sistine Chapel.

Once you get past the exquisite west facade, 52 marble paving stones designed by great artists between the 14th and 16th centuries tell biblical stories. Nicola Pisano’s 13th-century pulpit, supported by stone lions that clutch lambs in their teeth, is near the high altar. On the left side of the nave, a door leads into Piccolomini Library, which has 16th-century frescoes by the Perugian master Pinturicchio. In vivid color, they tell the story of Sienese Pope Pius II, a diplomat, poet and man of the world.

Late in the afternoon as we stumbled out of the baptistery at the rear of the cathedral, Martha spied a store called Erboristeria Amaranthus. The narrow shop specializes in Tuscan scents, soaps and cosmetics. For the next 45 minutes, the clerk passed esoteric perfumy scents under our noses and explained their compositions. I bought a bar of pomegranate soap, Catherine de’ Medici’s favorite.

We also sampled Siena’s rich winter cuisine, which featured sausages made from semi-wild cinta pigs, onion-flavored “cipollata” soup and skeins of “pici” pasta, a thick spaghetti.

Although many restaurants were closed for the off-season, we found Papei, a trattoria behind Palazzo Pubblico, where we attacked bowls of hearty minestrone and let the house red wine from Chianti flow.

Martha had rabbit stew, and I ordered a guinea fowl roasted with pine nuts and white beans. Dessert seemed out of the question until the waitress indulged us with “vin santo,” a dessert wine popular in Tuscany.

We sat for a long time dunking biscotti into the sweet, dark nectar, discussing Siena in winter. There had been nothing pleasant about wandering around the cold, wet town.

But no summer day-tripper can experience the art of Siena as intimately as we did, receive an impromptu seminar on scent-making or linger after dinner in a restaurant not worrying about monopolizing the table. And, certainly, we saved money by traveling in the off-season.

Then something happened that reaffirmed the virtues of off-season travel.

On the way back to Rome, we stopped overnight at Locanda San Francesco, in the hill town of Montepulciano about 50 miles southeast of Siena, where the weather deteriorated even more. When I awoke in the morning, I saw a thick fog around the town’s tiled roofs, the tops of distant hills poking out like Tuscan islands in a viscous sea.

For a moment, I stood silent before the landscape’s transfiguration, a gift that could be given only in winter.

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