Feast your eyes and fix your heart upon the faded reds and warm oranges of the façades which line the narrow streets of Siena’s old city centre.
Cobbled paths lead the traveller past unassuming churches whose walls are adorned with precious treasures, tiny bars filled with locals sipping coffee, and imposing townhouses whose heavy wooden doors have shielded the secrets of umpteen inhabitants.
All roads lead to Rome: in Siena’s case, the warren of winding lanes converges upon the striking Piazza del Campo, dominated by the soaring, white-crowned Torre del Mangia – home to the legendary annual Palio.
Eyes squeezed shut, it is remarkably easy to banish the bustle of locals and tourists and to imagine the thud of hooves on sloping terracotta brick; the roar of the crowd in the baking heat of the Tuscan afternoon sun.
Far from being off the beaten track, Siena is undoubtedly one of Europe’s most steadfast tourist destinations – as the countless kitsch souvenir shops and over-priced eateries which line the walkways of the historic centre can attest.
Cast your gaze beyond the brightly clad school groups, families whose faces drip with gelato and postcard-clutching, camera-toting hordes, though, and you will find myriad medieval surprises, amidst pockets of authentic Tuscan charm.
Forget Siena in the summer. Stroll through its medieval streets in the autumn, when the summer’s warmth has seeped into the age-old stones and the locals are reclaiming their city, filling its bars and sauntering through the piazze on their early evening passeggiata.
This is a city famed for its intimacy, in which wonders are condensed within walking distance: there is art, food and history here to keep you busy for weeks on end.
Tiptoe through the marvellous Duomo (one of the most beautiful in Europe); descend to the depths of the recently re-discovered Crypt to peer, wide-eyed, at its unique frescoes; and clamber up and up the spiral staircase to gaze down upon those picture-perfect terracotta-tiled rooftops from the Facciatone, a remnant of what would have been an enormous cathedral, abandoned after the Black Death of 1348.
As dusk descends, lose yourself in cobbled alleyways, duck under honey-stone arches and stare out over the undulating Tuscan hills, cypress trees towering over ancient buildings and casting shade on faraway paths.
Grab a carafe of local red in a little place on the Campo: sure, it’s touristy, but the ambiance is unbeatable. When you begin to feel peckish, amble along to the tiny Il Carroccio, just around the corner, for a feast of regional specialties in a buzzing, convivial atmosphere.
Autumn’s balmy evenings make sitting outside a must – and what better way to round off a day in Siena than by picking a perch on the sloping bricks of the Campo to watch the world go by?
Drive the Chiantigiana as you leave, rolling through the Tuscan countryside along near-deserted roads lined by cypress trees, weaving through somnolent villages, past bright vineyards and green hills as though in a dream.
This is the Siena that guide books promise – found and treasured in the depths of autumn.
WORDS BY SASKIA WALKER | IMAGES BY CHRIS ROWLANDS