Siena is likely Italy’s loveliest medieval city, and a trip worth making even if you are in Tuscany for just a few days. Siena’s heart is its central piazza known as Il Campo, known worldwide for the famous Palio run here, a horse race run around the piazza two times every summer. Movie audiences worldwide can see Siena and the Palio in the James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.
Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome thus Siena’s emblem is the she-wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus – you’ll find many statues throughout the city. The city sits over three hills with its heart the huge piazza del Campo, where the Roman forum used to be. Rebuilt during the rule of the Council of Nine, a quasi-democratic group from 1287 to 1355, the nine sections of the fan-like brick pavement of the piazza represent the council and symbolizes the Madonna’s cloak which shelters Siena.
The Campo is dominated by the red Palazzo Pubblico and its tower, Torre del Mangia. Along with the Duomo of Siena, the Palazzo Pubblico was also built during the same period of rule by the Council of Nine. The civic palace, built between 1297 and 1310, still houses the city’s municipal offices much like Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. Its internal courtyard has entrances to the Torre del Mangia and to the Civic Museum. If you feel energetic, a climb up the over 500 steps will reward you with a wonderful view of Siena and its surroundings. The Museum, on the other hand, offers some of the greatest of Sienese paintings. The Sala del Concistoro houses one of Domenico Beccafumi’s best works, ceiling frescoes of allegories on the virtues of Siena’s medieval government. But it is the Sala del Mappamondo and the Sale della Pace that hold the palaces’s highlights: Simone Martini’s huge Maestà and Equestrian Portrait of Guidoriccio da Fogliano and Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegories of Good and Bad Government, once considered the most important cycle of secular paintings of the Middle Ages.
Siena’s cuisine is pure and simple, yet distinguished by the excellence of its ingredients. Sienese meats, vegetables and herbs are of excellent quality, and most recipes call for the use of olive oil (which in this region is among the highest quality).
The oak woods around Siena are still home to the Cinta Senese swine, a native breed reputed for the excellent flavor of its meat), and the Val di Chiana area continues to raise the Chianina breed of cattle, a very important one in Italy. This breed probably originated during Umbrian and Etruscan times in central Italy. Chianina cattle are famous for their white skin and remarkable size; until forty years ago it was primarily used as draft animal, while it is now a selected breed for meat production.
Sienes cuisine has ancient origins, first Etruscan, who introduced the simplicity of herbs, and then Roman influence. Spices, a valuable commodity of the past, give distinct flavor to Siena’s typcial dolci such as Panforte and Cavallucci. Soups are an important part of Tuscan cuisine, along with roasted meat, wild game, and several types of handmade pasta.
Tuscany is the most enduringly famous of all Italian wine regions, thanks to the romantic glamor of its endless rolling hills, cypress-lined country roads and hilltop villages. But even without all of this, evaluated on the merits of its wines alone, Tuscany stands tall, its reputation founded on such iconic wines as Chianti, Brunello di Montalcino and Vino Nobile di Montepulciano.
Situated in central Italy, Tuscany’s neighbors are Liguria and Emilia-Romagna to the north, Umbria and Marche to the east and Lazio to the south. Its western boundary is formed by the Tyrrhenian Sea. As is the case with almost all of Italy’s 20 regions, Tuscany has a long wine history; it can be traced back as far as the fifth century BC.
Today, Tuscany is one of the most famous and prolific wine regions anywhere in Europe. Its vineyards produce an array of internationally recognized wines in various styles. These go far beyond the well-known reds, and include dry whites such as Vernaccia di San Gimignano and sweet wines both white (Vin Santo) and red (Elba Aleatico Passito). The region’s top wines are officially recognized and protected by a raft of DOC and DOCG titles.
Climate is a vital factor in this region’s success as a wine region. Warm, temperate coastal areas are contrasted by inland areas (particularly those in the rolling hills for which the region is so famous), where increased diurnal temperature variation helps to maintain the grapes’ balance of sugars, acidity and aromatics. One variety that particularly thrives on these hillside vineyards is Tuscany’s signature red grape, Sangiovese.
Arguably the most important of all Italian wine grapes, Sangiovese is the mainstay variety in almost all of Tuscany’s top reds. Its long history and broad regional distribution means that it has acquired various names. In Montalcino it goes by the name Brunello, whence Brunello di Montalcino. In Montepulciano, it is known as Prugnolo Gentile. Under the name Morellino it is the grape used to make Morellino di Scansano. Sangiovese also features in Chianti, in which it is joined by small amounts of Canaiolo and Colorino, as well as increasing quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.
With the rise of the Super Tuscans, the most famous of which come from Bolgheri, Cabernet Sauvignon has become a much more prominent variety in Tuscany. But despite the relatively recent appearance of such ‘international’ French varieties in Tuscan wines, native varieties still reign supreme.
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