Friday, February 13, 2009


The Medievel City of Hills

In 30 AD the Romans established a military outpost in the hills of Tuscany. It became an important trading center and over the next 1500 years seemingly everyone took a whack at governing it. First the Lombards, then the Franks, eventually the Church.

In 1348 Siena endured a disastrous plague. It killed 70% of its 100,000 residents. Despite that Siena still managed to wage war with Florence to establish dominance in governance and regional trade. Siena lost the war, but now with governance settled, rebuilt itself and concentrated on art and culture. Since the black death, Siena's population has never again reached its pre-plague numbers allowing it to simply recycle its "overbuilt" medieval building stock for the past 600 years. This has made it one of the best preserved medieval gems of Tuscany.

The City is made up of seventeen uniquely identified neighborhood wards or groups called Contrade. Each Contrade is represented (and its perimeter defined) by a different animal based logo. Once a year each Contrade is represented by a horse in the fiercely competitive Palio.

Il Palio

Getting There
Siena is easily reached by train, car, or bus. Most of the historic walled core is off limits to all but residents by permit, cabs and kamikaze motorcyclists.

So if you arrive by train, you will need to catch a cab into the historic walled City core.

If you arrive by bus, you can get off near one of the gates to the historic zone. A word of caution (based on experience), without serious pre-planning you will now confront a steep uphill trudge through twisty streets. All the while your travelmates may be quietly cursing the fact that you can't seem to hail a cab and have no real idea where you are and/or where you are going.

If you arrive by car you will need to park in an expensive perimeter lot and take a cab into the historic core.

Siena Spans from Hilltop to Hilltop
(A View of the Church of San Domenico)

Getting Around
Hills define this walled city. It seems to cling to the top and sides of three ridges resulting in an interweaving of tiny twisting streets and alleys. One soon learns they all seem to lead to the main Piazza del Campo.

After unpacking go start exploring. You simply need a pair of comfortable shoes as this is a city best explored on foot.

Where to Stay
There are few chain hotels in the historic core! So do your homework and make reservations well in advance (6 months to a year). We stayed in the uppermost guest room in the Residencia d'Epoca Palazzo Fani Mignanelli. The innkeepers here offer just 11 rooms and ours was quiet and spotlessly clean. It is just steps from the Piazza del Campo.

Where to Eat
This is Tuscany! Eat anywhere! We found the best classical gelato in Italy in Siena (the best contemporary gelato is still Florence's GROM which Update 2011 has now expanded with shops in Siena!) We walked into a cafe with a Rick Steves logo that turned out to be solid "B+" and into a basement Osteria (called Guidoriccio) we found just off the lower end of the Piazza del Campo that served us the best meal we had on our entire last trip to Italy Update 2011: Guidoriccio is now top rated on TripAdvisor and is still wonderful. Just go exploring!

The Heart and the Soul of Siena
Siena has both a beating heart and a rich soul. The heart is the Pizza del Campo where its citizens come to mingle and play. Its soul is its beautiful Duomo.

The Piazza Del Campo is a beautiful shell shaped piazza that looks like an amphitheater. It serves as Siena's living room. The Piazza also plays host to its Palio horse races twice a year (July 2nd and August 16th). An engineering marvel. The amphitheater shape is actually designed to drain the surrounding hills of stormwater, which it does with amazing efficiency.

Siena's wild side is represented twice a year by the Palio horse race and daily by the locals zipping through town on motorcycles. The price of the motor driven recklessness is chillingly demonstrated by the number of riderless helmets enshrined in one of the side chapels of Siena's Duomo.

The Duomo is a marvel. It has been under continuous construction since before the plague. Its floors are the worlds oldest graphic novel (comic book) where characters and stories are illustrated in stone.

The Duomo, however, is not a typical dusty religious edifice. In Siena the Duomo is a vibrant and active community church. The architectural composition of the Duomo is based on meticulously maintained layers of green and white marble.

The library positively sparkles from its frescoed ceiling to its floors. More importantly, however, are its walls which are lined with huge illuminated manuscripts.

Detail From an Illuminated Manuscript

The Ceiling of the Duomo Library

The Dome Itself

A Harmonious Mix of Gothic and Romanesque Architecture

Looking Out From our Hotel Over the Rooftops of Siena

The Piazza del Campo
(Site of Il Palio)
The Tower is New - Built in 1848
Il Palio
Truly a horse race, Il Palio pits bareback jockeys each representing a specific Contrade in a wild 3 lap run around the Pizza del Campo.

To prepare for Il Palio, the Campo track is carefully covered with a layer of earth that is compacted by steam rollers and never allowed to dry. Assessing the race year in and year out, improvements are continuously made (such as the addition of mattresses built into its sharp corners for safety).

Thousands of spectators come and stand in and around the Campo and once the race begins pretty much anything goes. Jockeys are frequently pushed, nudged, and whipped by other riders. Jockey's on occasion don't make it to the finish line but the rules are always the same. The first horse across the finish line (whether it has a rider or not), wins Il Palio.

The winning Contrade then celebrates for days.

Contrade Boundaries are Represented by their Adopted Symbol
(Onda - Swimming Dolphin)

Montone (The Ram)

A Coiled Snake
(Not a Contrade - but beautifully executed bronze at the Piazza del Campo)

While the worlds tourists all flock to Venice, Florence, and Rome, I particularly love places like Siena. Places that keep their historic soul, take a bit of work to get to (and to get around in), and provide surprises at every twist and turn. Roadboy gives Siena two big thumbs up!

Roadboys Travels © 2009

1 comment:

Cindy said...

Great post! Love the pictures!