24 Hours in Siena, or “Maps? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Maps.”
After careful consideration, a rental had seemed like the best way to go.
A college friend, Ken, and I spent a week and a half in Italy in the spring of 2002, with an itinerary that included us meeting up Rome, spending a few days touring the Eternal City, renting a car on the capitol’s outskirts and driving north on the Autostrada to Tuscany, then returning the car in Siena.
The vehicle was a silvery blue Opel Astra station wagon, a manual transmission diesel, and it was ours for three days. As the one experienced with a stick, I was deemed the driver. Despite its size, mileage was excellent, so we weren’t overly concerned when the needle dipped to an eighth of a tank. We had checked into our shiny, new, modern motel in Siena late the previous afternoon, having negotiated the most ferocious thunderstorm I’d ever seen. After several sunny Sunday hours spent tooling through Tuscan hill towns, picture-perfect vistas assaulting us at every turn, we reluctantly pulled into a gas station outside Pienza.
Pienza, where we learned the car was equipped with a locking fuel cap … only we weren’t equipped with the key.
Back at our room, following a wrong turn and hair-raising detour, I made numerous costly cell phone calls to the car rental agency’s branches in both Siena and Florence. It was finally determined that we would be required to squander precious sightseeing time the next morning driving to the Siena outpost for further assistance.
There was nothing more we could do just then. Reservations had been made for 8:30 at one of Siena’s most lauded restaurants, so we dressed for dinner and stopped to ask the front desk receptionist for directions. Walking might have been an option, but the car fiasco had put us behind schedule.
“Eeet’s very seemple. Just go out to the main road, take a right at the second … um … road and go up toward the walls and park and walk up — you don’t want to drive all the way to the restaurant. Eeet ees very bad to drive eenside the city. Eeet is right here,” she said, taking a ballpoint pen and describing a flea-sized dot on the standard Siena map issued to visitors upon arrival. “You can’t miss eet.”
What could possibly go wrong?
What, indeed. Somehow, we went one street too far, and the road wound up and up. Before we knew it, we were inside the city’s ancient walls. I flipped on the dome light and peered at the map: I could see the dot she’d drawn; I located where we were.
“Look, we just need to get to this street, and it should take us right there,” said Ken, pointing a long, bony index finger at the map. Only upon reaching that spot, we found it to be not a road, but a very long, very steep staircase about four feet wide.
“Feel like reenacting a scene from ‘The Italian Job’?” I hissed, glaring at him.
Tuscany was once the economic capital of the world: The medieval city-state of Siena, whose primary rival was Florence, was prospering as a center of moneylending and the wool trade when the plague struck in the mid-14th century. Home to a breathtaking cathedral, or ‘Duomo,’ (a planned expansion unrealized because Siena lost up to half its population to the pestilence and never quite recovered), its historic center has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. Nearby, Siena’s beating heart, the Piazza del Campo, teems with tourists during the day, while in the evening, natives take postprandial strolls—”la Passegiata,” an Italian ritual slavishly adhered to in Siena—outside the piazza’s perimeter and along the eleven narrow streets that radiate from it.
And somehow, after a few more misguided decisions, I found myself creeping along on that very road that rings the Campo—designated for pedestrians only, as it turned out. (I’d printed a color copy of European road signs off the internet before leaving Seattle. Printed it and left it sitting on my desk at home.) I had no idea what any of the signage meant, only the preponderance of people and complete absence of vehicles — aside from our own — told me I was where I shouldn’t be. After passing the exact same spot for a third time, I took a different turn down an alley between looming stone walls that narrowed to a width only slightly greater than that of the Astra itself. I had visions of us getting wedged in, unable to move forward or back, and being discovered a few years hence, my skeleton clutching the steering wheel in one hand, a really crappy Siena city map in the other. I felt strangely detached from reality, as though I was watching myself starring in a scene from a cinematic metaphor of my own pathetic, directionally challenged life.
“Guess we’ve missed our reservation,” said a quiet voice from the passenger’s seat.
Ken and I decided then and there, if we ever escaped Old Siena, to return to the inexpensive, friendly family restaurant where we’d dined the night before—well outside the city walls and a short drive from our lodgings. All told, we drove in circles for more than an hour before stumbling upon a way out: No pedestrians had been knocked over; la polizia hadn’t ticketed me; the shiny body of the Astra remained unmolested. I was calling it a rousing success. It was nearly 10:00 p.m. and we were well past mere hunger. (“Donner, party of two, your table’s ready!”)
Happily, our lovely Greek-born waitress was on shift again — we were grateful for her facility with English and had clearly impressed her with our all-but-unheard-of 20% gratuity: She seemed unwarrantedly welcoming. The dining room was packed, the din was deafening, a toddler was standing on his chair screaming (equally annoying in any language, by the way), but I’d never been so happy to be anywhere. She escorted us to the last vacant table and I let her know in no uncertain terms that I worshipped the very ground she walked on.
Sitting adjacent was a trio of middle-aged men clad in outdated suit jackets, looking for all the world like they’d been sent by Central Casting as extras in “The Godfather.” Clearly regulars, they’d brought their own bottles of wine and chatted at length with the restaurant’s owner, gesticulating emphatically as they spoke. One of the men, his chronological age ambiguous, had a muscular build running to doughiness, slicked-back salt-and-pepper hair, a square block of a head and the hugest, most dangerous-looking hands I’d ever seen on a real human being.
We savored our bistecca alla Fiorentina and a richly deserved carafe of Chianti. A bit later, as Ken and I mulled over the paltry dessert options, the Italians were delivered a trio of plates bearing what looked to be cannoli. I said to our waitress, “Psst! What are they having?”
“Them?” she replied, with a slight tilt of the head. “They bring their own dessert.”
A few minutes later she returned with two of the pastries, announcing, “The gentlemen would like you to have these.”
All I could think of was Clemenza telling Rocco, “Leave the gun. Take the cannoli.” We accepted the generous offer (we could hardly refuse, no?), smiled, nodded, ate hastily and with exaggerated gusto, and when they weren’t looking I turned to Ken and whispered, “Oh. My. God. We’re in BED with the MOB!”
We settled our bill, and I grinned broadly and mumbled to the men “grazie mille” as we scooted past their table, exited the restaurant and hastened to the car, glancing nervously and involuntarily back over our shoulders.
The following morning we toddled downstairs to ask for directions to the car rental agency. The receptionist, an only slightly different young woman from the evening before, gestured vaguely at the map, “Oh, you just go out on theees street and follow eet to the east and look for signs to a gate eento the city and then look for the green and yellow gas station and that’s about where you need to be, but thees place ees a very new area, you see, and eet ees not on the map…” (Criminy, what was it with this city and maps?)
Miraculously, armed with only those sketchy directions we managed—possibly guided by the sainted Madonna herself — to drive directly to it, tucked away on the back side of a warehouse complex, not visible from the road and only indicated by the tiniest of signs. Good thing, because after the previous night’s fiasco we were running solely on fumes and blithe ignorance.
The manager in charge at the car agency was one of the people I’d spoken to the evening before about our predicament. His English was very good, but he’d been more than slightly condescending on the phone: “Okay, you just bring the car in and we’ll show you how to get the cap off.” He didn’t have to SAY the words “stupido Americans” — his meaning was crystal clear.
Vindication was sweet, indeed. It took his lackey a solid ten, exertion-rich minutes to pry the cap off with an assortment of large tools. I successfully parlayed our not inconsiderable inconvenience into a few extra free hours on the three-day rental contract, so instead of having to return the car in Siena at the same location, we ended up driving ourselves to the Florence airport the next day and cabbing in to our central Florence hotel.
Thus, gentle reader, we bade arrivederci to Siena. And regarding having a rental car in the city, I’d avoid it — like the plague.