Literary & Movie Tourism: Siena – Tuscany – Italy

The famous author Henry James based many of his works on his travels through the countryside and ancient hill towns of Italy, a country he described as “warm & living & palpable.” Movie producers have found ideal locations here for familiar films such as A Room with a View and Under the Tuscan Sun. Another movie, perhaps less familiar, is My House in Umbria starring Dame Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall of the Harry Potter series, and Chris Cooper of Adaptation. The title is a bit misleading, however, as filming actually took place in Siena, Tuscany, a nearby region similar to Umbria. Released in 2003, moviegoers will enjoy the fine acting and the beautiful cinematography of this part of Italy.

Located about 40 miles south of Florence, some travelers plan a day trip to the walled medieval town of Siena, where 6 of the 8 original gates still stand. There is enough to see and do, however, to make a longer visit worthwhile.

Attractions:

A main attraction in Siena is the Gothic Cathedrale di Santa Maria, Duomo, which remained unfinished after the plague in 1348. The bell tower, crypt, and some of the original marble walls and inlaid flooring still stand. You’ll find some of the best in medieval art collections by great Italian masters, statues by Pisano, and Duccio’s Maesta masterpiece in the Museo dell’ Opera Metropolitana of the Duomo.

Hours: Mar-May & Sep-Oct, 10:30-7:30. Jun-Aug, 10:30-8:00. Nov-Feb, 10:30-6:00. Admission charge.

Other attractions of historical and architectural significance in the main square, Il Campo, include the Palazzo Publico (City Hall) and the Museo Civico of medieval art. Museum admission: $8.50.

The 328′ Torre del Mangia, the 2nd highest medieval bell tower in Italy, stands at the entrance to the square. Visitors can climb 500 steps to the top for a breathtaking view. Open: 1 Nov-15 Mar, 10 to 4; 16 Mar-31 Oct, 10 to 7. Admission: $10

The Palazzo del Magnifico, a Renaissance palace built for the powerful 16th century ruler, Pandolfo Petrucci, is open daily with free admission. For great views of the town and the surrounding countryside, take your camera and walk up to the church of Santa Maria dei Servi.

Another fascinating place to visit is the Santa Maria delle Scala, a former pilgrims hospital and orphanage dating back to the 10th century. The complex in front of the Duomo was converted in the 1990’s to several museums that are still being renovated. Visitors can view stained glass, artwork, frescoes, and sacred objects in the cathedral and museum exhibits. Etruscan bronze, Roman coins, and terra cotta objects are housed in the underground tunnels of the Archaeological Museum. Children’s Art Center, Contemporary Art, and Book and Photo Library on the grounds of the complex Open daily, 10:30-6:30. Admission: $8 & $6.

Palio delle Contrade, held on 2 Jul and 16 August each year, is a popular horse racing tradition and competition dating back to the 1600’s. Ten neighborhoods, or self-governing contradas, participate in this time-honored religious and civic celebration with feasts, music, and church services before contrades and bareback riders meet in Il Campo. This exciting entertainment is primarily for the locals, unless you have an invitation from a friendly contrade. Otherwise, you’ll have to stand with the crowds or pay several hundred dollars for a grandstand seat. The prize for the winning contrada is the huge Palio, or banner, and the distinctive honor that accompanies it.

(According to Frommers, combo tickets for attractions are available at the sites. 2-day museum passes, $15, 7-day passes, $20 to $24.)

Tours: Recommended by Rick Steves, feature travel writer and guide, Roberto’s offer full and half-day tours through the Chianti wine region, small towns, and the Tuscany countryside. Prices: $120 p/p, 6-8 hour tour (minimum 2 people). All-inclusive tours available. Email: toursbyroberto@gmail.com

Accommodations:

The ultra-luxurious Hotel Certosa di Maggiano, about ½ mile from the main square, offers travelers an incredible experience in a carefully restored 14th century monastery. Surrounded by 6 acres of lush landscaping, the Certosa has all the amenities you expect from a Relais et Chateaux upscale hotel. The hotel’s Il Canto restaurant was chosen as one of the 50 best in the world for the elegant atmosphere and gourmet cuisine by Chef Paolo Lopriore. Personal trainers, fitness facilities, and sports are first-class services provided by the hotel. The staff will arrange air ballooning, vintage car tours, wine tasting, cooking classes, hiking, biking, and horseback riding on request. Each of the 17 rooms in this boutique hotel has unique appeal for the discriminating traveler.

Rates (very expensive): From $500 Classic room to $900 for Superior/Deluxe.

3-day packages (e.g., nature, pampering, and adventure) and holiday specials are available. $900 & up per night. (See website for further information.)

Travelers give positive reviews for the Hotel Chiusarelli, conveniently located a short distance from the Duomo, Il Campo, and the bus station. This 19th century fully restored villa and the town were settings in “Juliett,” a novel by Danish author Anne Fortier. Guests can rent bicycles, reserve tours, or attend Italian language classes arranged by the hotel staff. With an onsite restaurant, terrace, bar, and garage parking ($20/day), rates at this small, lovely hotel are reasonable. Single – $100-$140, Dbl – $135-$200 (incl buffet breakfast)

Another option is the Campo Regio Relais, a comfortable B&B just off the main square. Guests enjoy breakfast buffet indoors or on the terrace. Rooms have mini fridge and bar, satellite TV, etc. Rates (seasonal): Dbl – From $265.

(Rates at less expensive B&Bs: $100-$125.)

Dining: Travelers will find excellent Tuscan cuisine with reasonable prices at the Osteria Le Logge, Osteria Nonna Gina, and the Ristorante Medio Evo.

The Antica Osteria da Divo is at the top of the list for fine authentic Italian food served in a romantic medieval atmosphere of ancient Etruscan tombs. Located a short distance from the Duomo, the owners Pino di Cicco and his wife offer a variety of traditional specialties, seafood, exotic wild game dishes, and rich desserts, along with a wide selection of wine and dinner music. Prices: $20-$50 (for 3-course meal). Open daily except Tuesday.

Il Grattacielo is a very small restaurant with simple, inexpensive food, eat in, or take out. While exploring the town, be sure and try the local specialty, panforte, a sort of non-alcoholic fruitcake, the gelato, and other sweets at Guido Nannini’s cafè and bakery.

(Note: Reservations required at some restaurants, especially during the summer.)

Getting there and around: Travelers can fly into Florence or Pisa, but Florence is the closest to Siena, less than an hour’s drive by car, an hour by bus ($10-$13), or about 2 hours by train (no direct connection to date). Walking is the only practical way to get around the hilly, narrow streets of Siena, closed to non-local traffic within the walls. Taxis are not plentiful, but buses go everywhere, tickets less than $1.

Sharon L Slayton

Filed Under: Movie tourism

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