For me, Siena and its surrounding countryside are as close to paradise as this earth gets. The Tuscan hills are full of timeless magic — whichever way you look, you are sure to find a perfect view. Birds sing constantly, every smell is glorious (aside, of course, from occasional wild boar droppings) and the locally grown food is unbeatable. It is as if everything has been carefully designed to soothe the soul.
But like so many of Earth’s remaining idylls, Siena is under serious threat. A plan has been hatched to build a large international airport at the site of a small airstrip at Ampugnano, five miles outside Siena in a valley surrounded by national park.
The cultural, aesthetic and environmental impact of such a vast industrial area would be colossal, not to mention the unthinkable noise pollution. The countryside would be replaced by taxiways, hangars, fuel depots, parking stations, terminal buildings, bus stations, rent-a-car areas and a vast road network. The ground beneath the site contains a natural aquifer that supplies much of Siena and the surrounding area with drinking water, and this would be contaminated by run-off and waste from aircraft. A good deal of the farmland that sustains the local population would be lost, trees would be felled and the delicate ecosystem would be dealt a heavy blow. It would encourage more flights at a time when we are fully aware of the grave implications of climate change and in a country — Italy — which is already saturated with airports.
It is not just me, or privileged foreigners with Tuscan boltholes who are against the airport. The scheme is so unpopular among the locals (who have not been consulted) that last recently about 4,000 of them marched through the streets of Siena to protest; in a city of 55,000 this represents a considerable chunk of the population. A Sienese farmer told me that this is the first time in history the people of Siena have turned against the ancient and powerful Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS) banking group, who are funding the airport project. Inspired by this local action, I set about galvanising resistance in London outside the National Gallery on the final day of the Renaissance Siena exhibition, sponsored by none other than MPS. Around 150 of us turned up, waved banners and signs, and occasionally chanted for a few hours.
It is my great hope that many more will turn against MPS’s dreadful scheme, because perhaps the most remarkable thing about Siena is how it has so far managed to embrace the benefits of the modern world without forfeiting its aesthetic heritage or rich culture. The city centre is mostly pedestrianised, the magnificent architecture is entirely in keeping with the city’s mediaeval atmosphere and the stunning 12th-century Duomo. Light pollution is so low that you can get a clear view of the stars from the Piazza del Campo. It feels like stepping back in time, except there is internet access and mobile phones. To compromise Siena would be a tragedy for everyone, even those who stand to profit from it. As the local Sienese anti-airport protesters say: ‘The project will completely destroy what you and we love about our area, our health, our peace of mind and our way of life.’
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated April 19, 2008