Published On: Thu, Jun 2nd, 2016

Spirit of Siena

Like the city itself, Siena’s top hotel is steeped in history. Sarah Lane enjoys a stay in sumptuous surroundings

Siena is indisputably one of Italy’s most alluring cities. With its fabulous art and architecture, strong traditions, delicious food and seductive air, it’s an unforgettable place.

Delightful medieval streets dotted with shops and trattorie twist around the shell-shaped main square, Piazza del Campo (known as Il Campo), site of the Palio horse races each summer. Thanks to forward-thinking policies such as pedestrianising the centre since the 1960s and banning TV aerials that mess up so many skylines, the city manages to retain the feel of another era, and Grand Hotel Continental does the same, epitomising everything that is Siena.

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A warm welcome to the city

My partner Malaga and I arrived in Siena late afternoon and reached the hotel, situated on the city’s main pedestrianised thoroughfare, just as the evening’s passeggiata was getting underway. Once through the revolving doors, however, the background chatter of the Via Banchi di Sopra fell away and we were welcomed into the calm of the hotel’s reception.

Checking in at the desk, my eyes were drawn towards the back of the hotel and an intriguing area of greenery that I later discovered to be the bar – bathed in a natural light it gave the impression of being in the open air. But with plenty of time ahead of us to explore further, we followed the porter straight up to our room. Wow! Rather like a room in a stately home (but without the draughts), we spent the next 20 minutes pointing out its fantastic features to each other – the antique chandelier, the view over Piazza Salimbeni and the rich, heavy fabrics of the drapes and bed covers.

ceiling

What impressed us the most though, were the fabulous frescoes decorating the ceiling – masses of golden stars standing out from a celestial blue background, with a colourful garland at the centre. This was actually the original ceiling, only rediscovered during renovations prior to the hotel’s reopening in 2002.

Prestigious guests

The building itself, known as Palazzo Gori Pannilini, was built in the 17th century over existing medieval dwellings. Commissioned by Pope Alexander VII, it was a gift for his niece Olimpia when she married into the influential Gori family – what a wedding present!

The palazzo first became a hotel at the start of the 20th century, attracting the cream of Siena’s visitors. One of the most prestigious guests was the Savoy Queen, Margherita – a plaque on the staircase commemorates her first visit. More recent VIP guests can be traced in the leatherbound visitors’ book in the lobby.

Aiming to see a bit of Siena – or at least reach Il Campo – before dark, we dragged ourselves out of the comfort of our room. Our attempts at doing
a bit of swift sightseeing were quickly thwarted though, as we were drawn into exploring the hotel’s bar area. Dominated by a huge clock, which was originally attached to an English church, Sapordivino bar has a quirky, fairytale character to it. Apparently, when first installed the clock had
a mechanical problem which made the hour hand whizz round full circle each time a minute went by. It’s since been fixed, but the phenomenon must have added to the magical quality of the place, evoking an almost Alice in Wonderland-esque quality.

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With colourful chairs, tiny tables and an impressive selection of drinks, the bar’s main appeal lies in its feeling of space. It is in fact in the palazzo’s former courtyard, but nowadays there’s a clear dome at the top to keep the elements out while letting the daylight in.

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In position behind the bar, Antonio – one of the hotel’s mainstays – gave us a cheery welcome and a complimentary cocktail. He also showed us round the wine cellar, an incredible place, which, like the rest of the hotel, is a successful combination of ancient and contemporary. With brick-vaulted ceilings, chrome steps and transparent bottle racks, it’s home to around 500 labels divided into three rooms: white wines, reds and a special place for the most prestigious Tuscan wines. This is no mere storage cellar, however – it’s been made into a cosy and characterful den with seating areas where you can sit to drink, or even to eat. During the low season frequent wine tasting events are put on for all the hotel guests.

Enjoying the atmosphere

Dusk had fallen by the time we finally left the cocoon of the hotel and joined the growing legions of people taking their evening passeggiata, but within minutes we were in the magical surroundings of Il Campo. Thanks to strict building regulations that have governed the square since the mid-13th century, the curved buildings around it create a stunning homogeneous effect. With proper sightseeing planned for the next day, we were happy just to stand, soaking up the atmosphere.

The next morning, refreshed from a wonderful night’s sleep, pampered by the divinely scented complimentary toiletries and invigorated by a delicious breakfast, we resumed our exploration of the city, and about ten hours later, imbued with the vibrant spirit of Siena, we returned to the luxury of our room to freshen up before dinner.
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Welcomed once again by Antonio, who showed us to our table at the hotel’s restaurant, we had the most incredible dining experience. We were made to feel completely at home as we ate our way through a menu of delicious dishes based on the traditional local cuisine, but made unique with a creative twist.IMG_3710

The Grand Hotel Continental, with its rich décor and sense of history, combined with the refreshingly open, communicative manner of the people who work there – not forgetting the excellent cuisine – really does encompass all the very best aspects of Siena. It’s the city’s top hotel, and with origins that are entwined with two of the most influential historic local families it’s not surprising that a stay here is a memorable experience – one that really lets you into an authentic part of the local history. 

Grand Hotel Continental

Via Banchi di Sopra, 85
%+39 0577 56011
www.royal-demeure.com

The hotel has an exceptional location in the centre of Siena in the magnificent Palazzo Gori Pannilini. The building was already a hotel in the early 20th century but recent renovation has restored it to its original glory. There are 51 luxuriously decorated rooms and suites altogether, some with stunning views over the Duomo and San Domenico church. The hotel’s two top suites are the Altana which is set on two floors and has magnificent 360° views from the medieval tower and the San Cristoforo suite, highly decorated with frescoes dating from the 15th century.

Wining & dining
Sapordivino is the name of the hotel’s bar, wine bar and restaurant. The bar is housed in the covered courtyard, while the well-stocked wine bar, which hosts frequent events for guests, is downstairs in the brick-vaulted cellar. The plushly furnished restaurant is on the ground floor and offers some divine dishes based on the exceptional local cuisine, which is all made extra-special thanks
to the inventiveness of the chef.

Special events
The hotel’s ballroom is ablaze with fabulous 18th century trompe l’oeil decorations and even has a wooden gallery for musicians.
The room is a perfect location for special events like weddings.

Out & about
With its stunning medieval centre and gorgeous setting in the lush Tuscan countryside, Siena is one of Italy’s delights. The fantastic scallop-shaped main square, Il Campo, houses the magnificent Palazzo Pubblico and Torre del Mangia – climb to the top for spectacular views. The city’s sensational candy-striped cathedral, beautiful both outside and in, was started in the 12th century and features an incredible inlaid marble floor.

Transport
To reach Siena fly either to Florence – Meridiana currently flies here from Gatwick – or to Pisa airport, which has a far wider choice of flights from all over the UK. From Pisa there’s a great new shuttle bus service you can take to central Siena. For information see www.terresiena.it. Travelling by bus is also the easiest way to reach Siena from Florence. There are frequent departures from the bus station near Santa Maria Novella station in Florence and the journey takes just over an hour.

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