A snapshot of an incredible place, and an unforgettable experience
This trip is probably one that I'll be sharing with my grandchildren someday. When I think about visiting Siena in 2016, I think about incredible food, scenery that took my breath away, hilarious memories, and the amazing people that changed my life.
I was approaching my final year of University, and I decided I wanted to go out with a bang. My sister had gone on an exchange while she was in University, and strongly recommended this "once in a lifetime experience". I'm not one to step outside my comfort zone, so I was on the hunt for the perfect medium. I stumbled upon a Summer Abroad program run by the University of Toronto, which offered a six-week Italian Food and Culture course in Siena, Italy. It was like spending the summer at my home away from home, what more could I ask for?
It seemed like within a blink of an eye, I was at the airport. At first it was a bit intimidating not knowing a single person, but once we all realized we were in the same boat, the ice began to break pretty quickly. After a couple Gravol tablets and an eight-hour nap, we finally arrived. All the students were assigned to buses that would take us to our residences, and I was off to Mattioli with two friends I made before getting on the plane. The residence was located in the Tartuca (turtle) contrada, one of the 17 contrade (districts) in the city of Siena. Mattioli had a large common room, a kitchen with timed burners, a courtyard, and an adorable key holder named Stefania, who knew us by our room numbers. It took no time to feel right at home, and the city was easy enough to navigate. If you ever got lost, all you'd have to do is find a fountain or flag that would represent the contrada you were in. For me, it took a couple detours to realize I needed to go left at the turtle fountain to get home, and right to go to the Piazza del Campo (Siena's city centre).
Siena is a vibrant city filled with passion and traditions. Twice a year, ten of the contrade dress in traditional uniforms, and compete in a horse race called the Palio, which takes place in the city centre . Here's why this must-see event should be on your bucket list:
The Palio is known worldwide. People from around the world visit to experience the neighbourhood parties, homemade wine, and the big race.
No Ticket Required. Buy some wine, and go to the Piazza three to four hours before the race. Get a good spot on the higher portions of the square so you can see the whole thing! You'll be surrounded by locals in contrada scarves, and feel this amazing, indescribable energy.
A night out in Siena can only go one way. Here are your two stops for your night on the town:
San Paolo. It's one of those hole-in-the-wall bars with a small patio, and overlooks the Piazza del Campo. You'd find locals and tourists singing Karaoke to songs from Maroon 5, Lady Gaga, and current Italian music.
La Trofea. Located in the Piazza del Campo, this is the perfect stop for some 1.25 euro pizza after a few drinks. The best way to enjoy the pizza is by taking a seat in the Piazza with your friends and locals.
I still have dreams about the food in Siena, and by the time you're finished reading my 3 must-try restaurants in the city, you will too.
Osteria Nonna Gina. The menu is completely hand written, well priced, and every visit is an experience in itself. My favourite dinner at the restaurant included a plate of stuffed gnocchi with ricotta in a pistachio cream sauce, and fried zucchini flowers. You even receive a digestivo (digestive) of amaretto and grappa at the end of your meal.
Antica Trattoria L'Aquila. Try the Tuscan delicacy Pici al Cinghiale (Tuscan thick spaghetti with wild boar ragu) steps away from the Campo. It's one of those "when in Rome" types of experiences, but trust me, if you enjoy a good ragu, you'll love it.
Osteria Castelvecchio. At the beginning of the trip, there was about 13 of us who decided to go to dinner to get more acquainted. We found a nice restaurant on a random side street, and walked in with no reservation. With no hesitation, a server welcomed us in and took us to a private table in a wine cellar. A lot of friendships formed at that dinner, and it became the obvious choice for us to return to for our last dinner together in Siena.
Siena will always hold a special place in my heart. There's no other way I could've imagined spending my summer that year, and I'm forever grateful for the memories and friends that Siena brought me.
Fa la brava,