`Siena opens its heart to you, even more than its door,’ reads the Latin inscription on the Camolia gate, the medieval city entrance. And it is true: in breaks, it is hard to escape the sound of student chat or the gentle strumming on guitars. One student, American lecturer Maria Iusco, makes the point more forcefully: `Come to Siena for the culture, art, food, gelato, people, vino and the Palio’. Most days end in the slanting, shell-like splendour of Piazza del Campo, the heart of civic life since medieval times. The square is at its most theatrical in the late afternoon, after a day spent in the shadows of the city walls of this most chiaroscuro city.
In lesson time, we go to a bar to practise polite requests, using “vorrei” (I’d like) and listening out for the alternative, imperative form: “fammi un caffe,” (literally: “make me a coffee”). We learn that in Italian, the sense of politeness can reside in the intonation. Instead, ultra-English punctiliousness (`would you mind’ and `could you possibly’) would often ring false in Italian and reveal you as a foreigner. So a visit to a bar becomes an entrée to Italian society and a lesson in socio-linguistics.
As another language exercise, false-beginners are despatched in pairs to Siena’s illustrious pastry-shops to check concoctions so prized they even have their own protector saint. We jump into both Nannini and Pasticceria Bini, which occupies what was supposedly Duccio’s workshop. This explains the wide medieval doorway, needed for the artist to transport his masterpiece, the Maesta, to Siena cathedral. We call in for pastries and conversation practice but come out with a potted history of Siena. We discover that exotic panforte fruitcake dates back to 1205 and uses spices that reached Siena on the Via Francigena pilgrimage route. Further prompting reveals a recipe based on honey, almonds, hazelnuts, candied orange peel and a secret blend of spices such as cinnamon and nutmeg.
Siena is a city that Italians call "a misura d'uomo" – meaning a city "made to the measure of man". Siena is, indeed, a Gothic city built on a human scale, and is effortlessly harmonious, mystical and at ease with itself. The cultural programme only accentuates these shared values. Our advanced Italian group is taken on a stroll in the footsteps of St Catherine. Legend has it that Siena is shaped like the protective cloak of the Virgin, who, with St Catherine, is the city’s patron saint. Our devout guide confirms this when we visit her shrine, followed by a pilgrimage to her relics in San Domenico, and her tiny wizened head, which is still intact. Catherine was a medieval ascetic, and lived like a hermit in a cell, reputedly sleeping with a stone as her pillow. If it didn’t sound too smug, the Sienese would admit to spiritual superiority.