When I was young, I can distinctly remember going around telling everyone: “When I grow up, I’m going to live in France,” France being the only place that I’d visited outside the UK.
I’d been on a school trip to Normandy when I was about ten. It was the early 80s and a big event, especially if you were ten and had never been abroad before. I don’t think I’d even been to London, never mind abroad. I remember we had these French lessons before we went, as much as you can cram into a short course. I also have rather vague memories of the Bayeux tapestry which was why we were there.
Yet I distinctly remember drinking hot chocolate out of bowls in the morning for breakfast. It felt like I was entering some secret world. It was foreign and it was incredibly enticing, and it bet Yorkshire hands down. Yorkshire had nothing on this. This was pure – well if not quite glamour, it certainly felt quite sophisticated, and certainly better than a bowl of cereal. And it was sweet, always a bonus.
As far as breakfasts go, it’s probably up there with the fresh sfogliatine, small pleated puff pastries filled with crème patisserie that I remember eating for breakfast in Florence fifteen years later. We’d rented a room in a pensione which didn’t have a view, so not quite like the EM Forster novel or the Merchant Ivory extravaganza A Room with A View with Helena Bonham Carter wandering round Florence and falling in love with her wild Italian man. We had no men, and no view, but we did eat cappuccino and sfogliatine for breakfast every morning if that was any form of consolation.
We went to San Gimignano and its towers one day and mingled with the tourists as it was the Italian bank holiday for 8th December and they were out in their hordes. “We need to go to Siena,” we said, especially as the next day we had to go back. Cue two young women look at each other.
What’s the quickest way to Siena?
It turned out there was no quick way to Siena, so we hitched a ride to Poggibonsi bus station. If Florence spoke A Room with View, Poggibonsi rang of Where Angels fear to Tread, Forster’s other Italian novel with a tragic ending, and certainly not the one you’d hope for. Although admittedly this was only the bus station.
We arrived in Siena about four o’clock in the afternoon, after having got a bus from Poggibonsi. The whole of Siena was lit up and the shops sold panforte (a type of chewy cake filled with cakes and nuts and ricciarelli biscuits).
I went back to Siena a few years ago with my husband and kids, although we couldn’t get in as I’d forgotten about the low entrances in the city walls and we had bikes on the top of the car. And two very young boys were tired and not really up for a walk.
Yet there was a wonderful wedding in a vintage Alfa Romeo that we watched as the bride and groom drove off down Tuscan roads to a backdrop of Siena on the hill. Then we stopped and ate grapes from the vines while the kids slept in the back of the car. “Try these,” said my husband. And so we did and looked over at the landscape and breathed in Tuscany and ate from its vines and savoured its beauty.
It all added to the atmosphere. In spite of not yet going back to Siena.