The perfect trip: Tuscany
Piazza del Campo, 7.30pm. It's busy with people moving from one part to another like shoals of fish; one, twos, groups, families, pushing buggies, children chasing each other, talking on mobiles, talking to each other, shouting across the spaces. The tables at the bars - Bar Caffetteria al Mangia, Bar Manganelli, Bar Il Palio, Bar Fonte Gaux - are full. The scene is colourful, orderly, civilised. The tempo is mellow. But twice a year, on 2 July and 16 August, it will be very different. Piazza del Campo will be packed, bursting with 30,000 people crammed into every available space, balcony or rooftop to watch the running of Il Palio, as it has been run almost every year for the last 700 years. Il Palio is a magnificent medieval pageant culminating in 90 seconds of racing madness, when 10 horses representing 10 contrade - areas - of Siena, ridden bareback, speed twice round the oval track that runs inside Piazza del Campo. Each contrade chooses, and pays, its jockey champion, but none of the jockeys knows which horse he will be riding until the day of the race itself. In theory, this minimises the chances of doping, bribery and general skulduggery.
'They treat the horses much better than the riders,' says Lisa Fallon, who is married to a Sienese and has lived in the city for 13 years. 'It is absolutely a race for the Sienese, not for the tourists. It has real significance for us. It represents the rebirth of whichever contrade wins. And it is mind-blowingly exciting.'
Between the Titanic excitements of Il Palio, life in Siena, on the campo and in the steep streets behind it, continues at a reasonable, civilised pace. There's time for lunch and there's time for dinner. There's time for an ice cream and there's always time for a light refresher in one of the bars.
To climb Torre del Mangia, the bell tower adjoining Palazzo Comunale, costs £7 (10am-4pm Nov-mid- Mar, until 7pm mid-March-Oct). sienaonline.com has information on the city.
Where to eat
A lively trattoria a few steps from Piazza del Campo, Hosteria Il Carroccio serves up hearty Tuscan food packed with flavour. Highlights include crostini neri di milza (beef spleen on toast) and ribbolita (bean stew), (00 39 0577 41165; via del Casato di Sotto 32; closed Thursday).
Where to stay
The challenge in Siena is to find somewhere to stay inside the walls that is quiet and has its own parking. Palazzo Ravizza is the civilised solution to both problems. Originally a 19th-century family home, the rooms are very comfortable and reasonable sized, and have been decorated with immaculate taste. There is a small, beautifully situated and tranquil terrace garden and lemon house at the back, and the hotel also has an excellent English bookshop. It's conveniently located near the Duomo and is an easy walk to Piazza del Campo (from £100; 00 39 0577 280462; palazzoravizza.it; Pian dei Mantellini, 34, 53100 Siena).
Le Crete Senesi: Best for walking
While there's the odd outpost of village life in Le Crete, such as Mucigliana and San Martino in Grania, the region is more remarkable for its absence of human occupation; it lies either side of the S438, which runs southeast from Siena. Wandering through the area, you realise it's beautiful, but, well, different. Le Crete Senesi means 'Sienese clay', which helps explain the prevailing curious monochrome colour - warm grey, café-au-lait loam, cataracts of eroded soil, and abstract fields of wheat and sunflowers all without boundaries. There are steeply rolling, voluptuous hills seamed here and there with lines of trees, shaded by thicker pelts of woodland. These lines of cypresses stand like erect artist's brushes, tight and black against a sky that's as blue as the wing of a chalky blue butterfly before coiling across the side of a hill, marking the track leading to solid, handsome, muscular farmhouses. They no longer serve as farmhouses, but as the civilised retreats for rich Sienese, rich Florentines, rich Germans and rich English.