Tuscany in winter brings shivers of delight

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

I was feeling lucky.

That was my excuse for going to Siena in the dead of winter, when Tuscany is generally cold and rainy.

But rules -- including those that govern the weather -- were made to be broken in Italy, I’ve found. In Rome, you can wake up on a winter morning with rain beating on the window, bundle up and go outside and find yourself sweating in your coat, wishing you had sunglasses instead of an umbrella.

So when my sister, Martha, came to visit me last month, I took a little gamble by planning a driving tour through southern Tuscany in the nadir of the low season. Neither of us had ever been to Siena, about 150 miles north of Rome, home of the famous Palio horse races held in July and August. And I had a yen to see the Tuscan countryside with its vineyards and hill towns, the model for paradise in paintings by 14th and 15th century Sienese masters.

Taking trips in the off-season is a tried-and-true tactic for saving money, especially useful when travelers who refuse to be thwarted must find ways to cut corners.

During the off-season in Europe (January, February and March), airfares are in the bargain basement and hotel room prices are cut by as much as 30%. Winter is concert, ballet and opera season, never mind sale time at shops in most European capitals. Crowds are smaller, so travelers stand a good chance of rubbing shoulders with locals and spending quality time at usually packed tourist attractions.

Of course, some restaurants, shops and attractions are closed in winter, and you can’t go out walking unless you put on about 10 extra pounds of clothing.

But in my heart of hearts, I believed the gods would smile on two sisters with the temerity to go tooting around Tuscany in February. At a rental office in Rome’s Termini train station, a nice young man said he was giving us a free upgrade to a very special car, which turned out to be a finicky Lancia with a bizarre transmission that sometimes automatically shifted from gear to gear, sometimes not.

Once we got out of town onto the A1 Autostrada, heading north, I pointed out parasol pines standing in silhouette along the ridges around Rome, marshes by the corkscrewing Tiber River and snowcapped mountains to the east where a relatively young, athletic Pope John Paul II used to decamp from the Vatican to ski.

In about an hour we crossed from Lazio to Umbria and then into Tuscany, which occupies what many people consider the fairest part of the Italian peninsula, south of Florence and west of the Apennine Mountains. At that moment, however, we had to take our guidebook’s word for it because the fabled hills of Tuscany were shrouded in storm clouds.

A good dual-lane highway took us west from the autostrada to Siena. The hotel where I had booked our rooms had given me directions for navigating the maze of narrow, one-way streets leading into the gated old town. Siena was the first European city to ban cars and mandate a color scheme consonant with architectural tradition, preserving the historic center, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Etruscan archaeological remains suggest that the city was founded at least as early as Rome. But antiquity plays at the back of the orchestra here, because Siena is one of the most splendidly intact Gothic cities in Europe. During the 13th and 14th centuries, it competed for power with Florence and its banks propped up cash-strapped popes and kings. Siena’s Monte dei Paschi bank, which opened in 1472, continues to underwrite civic projects that give the town of about 60,000 an air of prosperity and sophistication.

Siena is a red brick beehive built across three steep, calf-wrenching hills. Immediately enchanted, Martha and I checked into the Palazzo Ravizza, a small, distinguished hotel above the city walls. We arrived the day it resumed operation after its annual two-month winter closure and we appeared to be the only guests. Our well-heated rooms had heavy, old-fashioned furniture and windows overlooking the terrace garden whose miniature orange trees were shivering in bubbles of protective plastic.

Back on the street in a spitting rain, Martha and I climbed to the cathedral. A crane poised over the dome subtracted little from the effect created by the building’s famous western façade made of alternating strips of black and white marble, encrusted with saints and angels weeping in the rain. Gazing up from my umbrella, I thought of all the other Gothic churches I’d admired in Europe -- Westminster Abbey and Chartres Cathedral -- but they were barnyard ducks next to this Sienese swan, I decided.

Wandering deeper into town, we turned onto a steep stone ramp that emerged into Siena’s singular, shell-shaped campo. It’s paved in a herringbone pattern of brick, and native son Jacopo della Quercia’s delicately carved early 15th century Fountain of Joy is embedded near the crest of the slope, facing the tall, spindle-thin campanile of the Palazzo Pubblico. We had tea and panforte, a sort of Sienese fruitcake too thick and gluey to cut with a fork, at a café on the campo, reading from our guidebook about how the piazza looks at Palio race time. With the campo virtually empty and our boots ringing eerily on slick stones, we were stymied trying to imagine the color and excitement of the race.

Just when I was starting to feel depressed about missing the Palio, Martha and I visited the museum in the Palazzo Pubblico. It was built around 1300 and decorated by Italy’s best Gothic painters to exalt Siena’s civic and religious spirit. Apart from the sleepy guards, we had the gallery to ourselves, including its prize, Simone Martini’s “Maestà,” a group portrait of the Virgin Mary surrounded by golden-haloed saints. The Madonna is much more than Siena’s ubiquitous patroness. She is its personal protector and divine governor who, according to the picture’s legends, ignores the prayers of those who oppress the weak.

Next door in the meeting room of the Council of Nine, a group of oligarchs who governed the city in its heyday from 1289 to 1355, we found something even better: Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s “Allegories of Good and Bad Government,” three walls of paintings that portray how a city-state prospers or descends into chaos, depending on its rulers. The frescoes’ details of daily life in the Middle Ages are vivid and absorbing, especially those in the good government panels showing a thriving land with sowers, threshers and a peasant leading a fat pig to market.

That, as it turned out, was about as much of the fair Tuscan countryside as I would see on the trip. Both mornings at our hotel I jumped out of bed, ran to the window and threw open the curtains, but a winter rain front seemed to have overshadowed Siena the way Florence did in the 16th century.

Unlike bad government, foul weather sometimes has its benefits, in this case focusing our attention on the artistic treasures in Siena’s museums, many which have been moved there from less hospitable outdoor locations. On our one full day in town, we spent hours in the medieval pilgrims’ hospice Santa Maria della Scala, the Pinacoteca art museum, the Duomo Museum and, of course, the Duomo itself, a cathedral and artistic repository that, to my mind, rivals the Sistine Chapel.

Once you get past the exquisite west façade, 52 marble paving stones, designed by a host of great artists between the 14th and 16th centuries, tell biblical stories at your feet. Nicola Pisano’s 13th century pulpit, supported by stone lions that clutch lambs in their teeth, is near the high altar. On the left side of the nave, a door leads into the Piccolomini Library, which has early 16th century frescoes by the Perugian master Pinturicchio. In breathtakingly vivid color, they tell the life story of Sienese Pope Pius II, a diplomat, poet and man of the world.

It was as though we’d been locked in an art museum overnight. Late in the afternoon as we stumbled out of the baptistery at the rear of the cathedral, Martha spied a store called Erboristeria Amaranthus and pushed open the door. The narrow little shop, lined with shelves from floor to ceiling, specializes in Tuscan scents, soaps and cosmetics. For the next 45 minutes we had the undivided attention of the clerk who passed complex, esoteric scents under our noses and explained their compositions. Irresistibly tempted, I bought a bar of pomegranate soap, Catherine de’ Médici’s favorite.

We also freely sampled Siena’s rich wintry cuisine, which featured sausages made from semi-wild cinta pigs, onion-flavored cipollata soup and skeins of pici pasta, a kind of thick spaghetti.

Though many restaurants were closed for the season, we found the lights on at Papei, an unassuming trattoria behind the Palazzo Pubblico, where we attacked bowls of hearty minestrone and let the house red wine from Chianti flow. Martha had succulent rabbit stew for a main course, and I ordered a little guinea fowl roasted with pine nuts and white beans. We were so sated that dessert seemed out of the question until the waitress indulged us with goblets of vin santo, a dessert wine popular in Tuscany.

We sat for a long time dunking biscotti into the sweet, dark nectar, discussing whether it had been wise to come to Siena in winter. There had been nothing pleasant about wandering around the cold, wet town. We didn’t make it to the top of the Palazzo Pubblico’s campanile, which is closed when it rains, had no stories to tell about the Palio and never saw the Tuscan countryside, except in Lorenzetti’s paintings.

But no summertime day-tripper can experience the art of Siena as intimately and intensely as we did, take an impromptu seminar on scent making in a perfumery, or linger for an hour after dinner in a restaurant not worrying about monopolizing the table. And, certainly, we saved money by traveling in the off-season, not counting the tiny fortune we spent at the Erboristeria Amaranthus.

Then something happened that completely reaffirmed my belief in the virtues of off-season travel.

On the way back to Rome, we stopped overnight at the Locanda San Francesco, perched at the top of the hill town of Montepulciano about 50 miles southeast of Siena, where the weather deteriorated even more.

When I woke in the morning I ran over to the window and saw a thick coat of fog around the town’s tiled roofs, the distant tops of hills poking out of it, like Tuscan islands in a viscous sea.

For a moment I stood silent before the landscape’s transfiguration, a gift from the Madonna, I fancied, that could be given only in winter.