Misleading & Mistaken in Siena

Not Just Another Today is August 16th, the day of the Palio dell’Assunta in Siena. If you’re not sure che cavolo (literally: what the cabbage, used like what the heck) I’m talking about, click here and here and here to read up on the Palio.

Although this summer has been the hottest summer in Tuscany in 130 years or something (and no, I don’t have air conditioning), the weather these last few days has taken a real turn for the brutto (ugly). It’s been rainy, kinda cold. Thunder and lighting. I actually had to wear a sweater the other night for the first time in months.

What does this have to do with anything?

As you know, the Palio is run in Siena’s stunning Piazza del Campo, on a track made of tufo sand. The track is laid in the piazza a week or so before the race so that the cavalli (horses) and fantini (jockeys) can do their prove (trial runs). This is all well and good, but when it rains, the track gets wet and then becomes too dangerous to use.

Yesterday it rained enough that the Prova Generale (the trial run on the night before the Palio) was cancelled. Today, we all waited patiently to hear if the Palio itself would be postponed (never cancelled) because of the track conditions.

So we waited and waited for the official sign to come mid-afternoon today.

What were we waiting for?

A solid-colour bandiera (flag) to be hung out one of the windows of the Palazzo Comunale (City Hall, probably my favourite building on earth) to signal that the race would be put off (this is important) until the conditions became suitable again. If the Palio was going to go on, there would be no special flag flown, just the ones of the 10 contradas that were running the race, which have been flying for days.

Around 2pm today, this is what we saw:

Bandiera Verde, credit Tabata Psillakis

Bandiera Verde, credit Tabata Psillakis

, it’s green.

In the rest of the world, green means go. In Siena, apparently, it means no-go.

Any of the other times I’ve been here for the Palio, it’s been run as per normal and never postponed, so I’d never encountered the “green flag of no” before today. But it really shouldn’t surprise me.

You see, when I first started coming to Siena, I noticed quite a few other things here that weren’t quite what common logic would like them to be.

Take navigating the city streets, for example. Often you have to go up a hill just to go back to your destination that’s actually down. You have to go left to finally end up right. You have to go south to finish north, sometimes east to finish west. Missing a turn and figuring, “I’ll just take the next cross street” doesn’t help you, because the idea of a “cross street” doesn’t exist and the next turn you take has you doubling back and ending up anywhere but where you want to be. I’ll bet on it.

Don’t just take my word for it though, please follow these signs that have you going in two different directions to get to the Campo:

Finding your way...

Finding your way…

And although this has since been changed, would anyone like to take a guess at what the city bus company here was called when I first set foot in Siena?


Davvero. Really. I’m not joking. And to make matters worse, the full legal name of the company was TRAIN S.P.A, so you really had no idea what you were getting!

The TRAIN bus in Siena.

Beautiful, isn’t it? So typically Italian, this hodgepodge of things that are very fuorvianti (misleading).

And when they finally get to running the Palio once the track dries up, do you know which is the worst place to finish in? In the rest of the world, out of 10 horses, we’d probably say the worst place to finish was 10th. In Siena, out of 10 places, the worst place to finish is second. Because you were so close; you almost could have come first.

Except you didn’t.

Talking About Siena

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Talking about Italy is one of my favrouite things to do. Talking about Tuscany moves even farther up the list. Talking about Siena, well… Talking about Siena is probably in my top three things to do after eating cake and drinking Prosecco!

Recently, Melissa Muldoon, the voice/face/writer/creative spirit behind the wonderful Italian language & culture blog Studentessa Matta asked me to participate in one of her podcasts and talk about… You guessed it! Siena.


In the podcast, which I recorded in my (then) rusty and error-riddled Italian, talks about my Italian learning adventure and also the city of Siena. I would encourage all of my readers to hop over to Melissa’s blog and take a look – not just at my podcast (although that would be nice!) but also at all the fun things she talks about and explains.

Melissa also organizes some really fun language immersion vacations here in Italy. I actually published a guest post about them here.

Again, grazie Melissa for the opportunity to participate in one of your great podcasts!

Dinner in Chianti: Dining at Castello di Spaltenna

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"There are a few perks to being a blogger who blogs mainly about Italy, like receiving invites to dinner at evocative, charming medieval castles in Chianti, such as Il Castello di Spaltenna.


At the castle entrance.

A little background: Castello di Spaltenna is nestled in some of those iconic rolling Tuscan hills just above the town of Gaiole in Chianti, about 45 minutes north east of Siena. The castle dates back to the year 1000, with the Pieve (church) being the structure’s focal point.

Today the castle and its related structures comprise a luxury resort, complete with a whole host of rooms and apartments decorated in classic Tuscan style. There’s a pool, a vineyard, and new this year is a spa, with an array of treatments such as saunas, massages, Turkish baths for visitors to choose from.

What sets Spaltenna apart from some other resorts in the area is that it’s not a new structure made to look old and authentic, it really is authentic. It’s been carefully restored and kept throughout the centuries, and it’s the perfect spot if you’re looking for a serene Tuscan getaway. You won’t always have wi-fi (the monks didn’t!), and it’s a bit of a challenge to get to if you don’t have a car, but well worth the effort.


Paradise in Tuscany – Castello di Spaltenna

Castello di Spaltenna also has two restaurants: La Terrazza for breakfast and lunch, and the more formal, Il Pievano for dinner. Both run under the direction of Executive Chef Fabrizio Borraccino, whose leadership, coupled with the hard work of his team, have been garnering a lot of media attention and praise lately. And let me tell you, it’s very well deserved. More about that later.


We (a group of communications/travel/hospitality professionals) arrived at Spaltenna at dusk, and were immediately welcomed by the hotel’s Director, Alessandro Ercolani, who offered us an aperitivo on the terrace, and who spoke to us about both the history and the future of Spaltenna. We watched the sun set behind the cypress trees before moving over to the stone-walled inner courtyard of Il Pievano to tuck into our candlelight dinner.

Il Pievano Restaurant - luxury & ambiance in Chianti

Il Pievano Restaurant – luxury & ambiance in Chianti

There, we were met by the Maitre D’, Andrea Giubbilei, and his attentive staff. They welcomed us, pulled out our chairs, brought stools for our purses to rest on( something I’ve never been offered in Canada) and hinted that we shouldn’t fill up on the freshly made foccaccia, rustic bread and grissini (breadsticks) that already adorned the table. We were to have a multi-course tasting menu, the Maitre D’ explained as his staff brought the first dishes, and we needed to ensure that we tasted all of the chef’s creations.

[I won’t post pictures of everything we ate, just my top dishes. I’ll also refrain from over-explaining. The pictures speak for themselves. Words would only diminish…]

Freshly made bread, foccaccia and grissini.

Freshly made bread, foccaccia and grissini. Candlelight.

Quail egg and truffle.

Quail egg and truffle.

Eggplant breaded and with tumeric.

Eggplant breaded and with turmeric.

Chicken liver with red onions.

Chicken liver with red onions and brioche bread.

The best risotto ever made.

The best risotto ever made. Oh, the consistency!

Pici pasta with lampredotto (tripe!).

Pici pasta with peas and lampredotto (tripe!).

Tortelli with duck.

Tortelli pasta filled with duck.

Peach and lemon sorbet dessert. Divine.

Peach and lemon sorbet dessert. Divine.

Raspberry chocolate dessert. Heavenly.

Raspberry chocolate dessert. Heavenly.

The Maitre D’ very kindly explained each of our 13+ courses as we savoured them. He also paired the dishes with locally produced wines, some even from Spaltenna’s own, very limited production. Red wine, white wine, vin santo. It was glorious. By the end of our meal (which I completely finished, thank you very much) I was on a food high, lulled by the serene atmosphere (and the wine), senses heightened by the flavours, colours and textures and smells.

Never had I taken part in such a luxurious dining experience. Ever.

Now, I’m no restaurant critic. I don’t have a ton of experience with “fine dining”. You don’t have to take my word that the food was exquisite and so was the service. But I’ll tell you what really put this dinner over the top for me: Chef Borraccino convinced me. He convinced me.

Not with words, but with flavours and textures and combinations and smells, he had me eating things I would have previously turned down with a sneer and a shudder: shrimp, oysters, chicken liver, tripe, tomato soup and pigeon. Instead, I was asking for more and taking detailed recipe notes.

Our dinner party with Chef Borraccino, after the meal.

Our dinner party with Chef Borraccino, after the meal.

At the conclusion of the meal, Chef Borraccino came out to greet us and speak with us a bit about his professional background and his vision for what a dining experience should be. What struck me most of all was his passion. It was after midnight. He had worked all day, literally slaving away over a hot stove, preparing an inviting array of dishes for us and the other patrons. After all that, his eyes still sparkled as he spoke about his food, as he delighted in our delight at his cooking.

After an experience like that, the Frazzled Chef in me wants to hang up her apron.

If you’re interested in having a similarly delightful experience (and you are), then check out Castello di Spaltenna’s website here.

*       *       *

Now for the thanks, first in English, then in Italian.

[I’d like to extend my thanks, first and foremost to Sonia Corsi, who organized my evening at Castello di Spaltenna, to the Director, Alessandro Ercolani, for so graciously hosting us for the evening, to the Maitre D’, Andrea Giubbilei, for his welcoming and informative presence, and to the rest of the team, especially Donato La Torre, the second-in-command in the kitchen. Last but not least, I’d like to thank Executive Chef Fabrizio Borraccino. Your work is spectacular, and the passion with which you do it is inspiring.]

[Vorrei ringraziare in primis Sonia Corsi, che ha organizzato la mia bellissima serata presso il Castello di Spaltenna. Grazie anche al Direttore, Alessandro Ercolani, per la graziosa accoglienza. Grazie anche al Maitre, Andrea Giubbilei, per l’impeccabile informativa sui piatti e mille grazie anche al resto dello staff, soprattuto a Donato La Torre, il braccio destro dello chef. In fine, grazie di cuore allo Chef, Fabrizio Borraccino. Il tuo lavoro è spettacolare, e la passione con cui lo fai m’ispira.]