Monday, June 18, 2007
The passeggiata is one of my favorite Italian customs. Whether a lazy stroll, arm-in-arm, after the daily siesta (or pausa as it’s known here in Tuscany), or a midnight gelato and turn about town after dinner, the passeggiata anchors the day and affirms community in the most pleasant way.
I suppose the passeggiata began as a way to see neighbors and conduct the business of life. By the Renaissance in Florence, the 1st floor of most palazzos was open to the street, and commerce was conducted under the loggia or out in front of the buildings. Florentines who navigated the streets and the interactions that occurred there with capable grace and intelligence were known as furbos – a great compliment.
Modest women were expected to stay within the home, and so the street became their theatre – something to be looked out on or spoken across to women in windows on the other side of the narrow streets while remaining properly hidden. These days, of course, everyone participates in the passeggiata: men, women, and children (who are far less segregated from adult life here than they are in the States).
In larger cities, such as Florence, a passeggiata can be hard to recognize in the crowded streets, though the tradition is still evident in some quieter neighborhoods. But glorious passeggiatas still take place in smaller Tuscan cities like Lucca and Siena and in some villages, including Castiglione della Pescaia in the Maremma.
Siena has a festa each Sunday between April and September – yesterday in celebration of Sant’Antonio of Padua – and the locals drape their neighborhoods in heraldic colors.
The passeggiata here really picks up by 4pm, when cars pull up to the city gates and both locals and tourists pour into the streets.
It's a true treat to watch the walk begin while nibbling the town’s panforte – a spiced fruit and nut cake treasured as long ago as the crusades for its endless shelf life.
Panforte comes in many flavors at Nannini, including chocolate and cherry, fig and hazelnut, peppery Antico, and the almond and citron-studded Classico.
By 6pm yesterday, the parade had begun. Drums echoed up the winding stone streets as small boys in traditional dress rounded the corner. Next came teenagers – far more matter-of-fact about the whole thing than I can imagine any self-conscious American adolescent boy feeling.
Then came the men, stopping to chat with friends and holding up the procession for a few moments whenever a familiar face appeared in the crowd. Finally the neighborhood officials and women processed past, all draped in their neighborhood’s colors.
The passeggiata in Castiglione della Pescaia, a beach village, is a nighttime affair. It starts at the end of the day, when sun-drenched wanderers filter past the harbor fish market and fishermen mending their nets up to the main drag for aperitivi and antipasti.
Astringent Negronis and Americanos or a simple glass of Prosecco or beer and some slices off a hunk of soppresata refresh as the ritual begins.
The crowds build during dinner, and by the time you’re ready for a gelato (always look for a gelateria artigianale, where the frozen treats are made on the premises), the cafes and bars have overflowed onto the ancient stone streets. Babies sleep and dogs wag as locals greet one another and stop for a chat or a digestivo.
I think there may be no better way to get a feel for daily life in a new town or to reacquaint oneself with a beloved city after a few years away.
Nannini Conca d'Ora in Siena
Via Banchi di Sopra, 24 (0577 236 009)
Open: Monday - Saturday, 7:30am - 11pm; Sunday, 8am - 9pm.