From the Gutter to the Sunrise: Nearly Slumming in Siena, Italy

Europe 163
Leonhardt, Justine. “Siena on Sunday Morning”. 2011. JPEG.

Like a beacon at the end of a long journey, it sat stoic and customer-less beneath a yellow arcade cut into the side of a building in Siena. I had come across many things to love in Italy, but few things pleased me more than the instant coffee machines littered here and there – somewhat unpredictably – all over the place. In a country known for great coffee, it might seem like blasphemy to have such adoration for the vending machine variety, but there was something to be said for the half-bitter sweetness I didn’t have to throw myself across a bar or stutter out any bad Italian to get; the only thing required was about half a euro.

Most people actually plan on going to Siena before they get on the bus – I mean, they plan it in the sense that they know which day they’re going to go and probably where they’re going to stay, and even what they might do. It’s a lovely city that any visitor to Italy should plan on going to, but my journey to its center did not really work out in the customary way.

The night before going, I had endured a sleepless night at a Florence hostel. I figured out around 3AM why it was one of few available rooms in the city after hearing the noise from the downstairs bar for hours on end, loud enough that it seemed like a pre-packaged frat party had split open in my room. The next morning, after pounding the streets for a few hours and finding nowhere to stay, I thought, ”A-ha, Siena!”, and decided to take an afternoon bus out of Florence.

By this point in my travels, I had developed the habit of perusing Hostelbookers.com for places to stay without indulging in the equally fine habit of reserving them. There didn’t appear to be any availability in Siena, but I convinced myself otherwise. I was prepared enough to map the walk from the plaza we would be arriving at to a hostel, but alas, we arrived somewhere entirely different and I found myself suddenly feeling as rudderless as I had in Florence.

In no state of mind to deal with finding a place to sleep, the wheels of my luggage clattered harshly against every cobblestone seemed laid out to stop them, the Italian men appraising me curiously. I hate asking for any kind of direction, but I was so desperate after making my way down a quiet street that I entered a hotel. The old man behind the desk must have felt my anguish as he called the hostel to ask about a room, but they had no vacancy and neither did the hotel. “You didn’t make a reservation?” He asked, his eyes a sympathetic scold mirroring the way I felt. I turned around, pushing awkwardly through the revolving door as I started to cry. I looked for a place to hide – some alcove or side-street – but there was nowhere to go to get away from the pedestrians, the cars and the burning blue Italian sky that, if it could, would probably laugh at my silly, unstoppable tears.

It was a sweet relief to find the visitor’s center in Piazza del Campo ten minutes later. Out of stubbornness, I usually avoided the tourist information booths but I realized I couldn’t help myself any longer. Within minutes, the woman behind the desk was on the phone looking for hotels, her calmness a foil to my trepidation. She managed to find a hotel just a few minutes from the piazza, and while it smelled stale – of water damage and time – I was relieved and elated to have a place to sleep that was not a park bench.

By 7:30 AM the next morning, I was out on the streets. It was the last Sunday in October and the old city was emptied, the sun peeking out just below its walls, and the only sound the clack of my boots against the pavement. I purchased a latte macchiato at the vending machine and within thirty minutes, I was standing outside of Siena’s impressive cathedral. Where huge crowds had swarmed the day before, now there was only a few people milling near the church doors. I sat on the ledge of a building across the piazza drinking my coffee, basking in the precious quiet that would be replaced by mid-morning – a gift much more valuable for the awkwardness of the journey.

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