Siena is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Unlike Venice or Rome however, I didn’t have a mental picture of what to expect before I went there. For centuries Siena has been in the shadow of its neighbor and rival, Firenze (Florence), but to me it’s even more breathtaking. Nestled in the rolling hills of the fabled Tuscany region, its earth-toned buildings seem to blend into the surrounding countryside. Siena’s historic center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, for obvious
reasons—everywhere you look is like stepping back in time. Medieval buildings in shades of ochre, cinnamon, and umber line cobblestone alleyways and everything is bathed in soft, golden light. The city is divided into seventeen distinct neighborhoods, or contrade, each with its own colorful flag and emblem. I loved wandering aimlessly through the streets on the lookout for glazed tiles of eagles, caterpillars, dragons and unicorns marking the borders between each of them. We saw some kids twirling a Giraffa banner—it looked like they were preparing to play a game of Quidditch or something!
The Piazza del Campo is the heart of Siena. What makes this public square distinctive are the bricks that were laid in the shape of a giant scallop-shell or fan. Il Campo, as it’s known by locals, is lined with cafés and restaurants and has been a gathering place for the Sienese for centuries. What better way to experience la dolce vita than to sit at a table with a glass of Chianti, gazing out onto the square?
The focal point at the bottom edge of the Piazza del Campo is the gothic Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall). Inside, there’s a vast array of frescoes by some of the great Italian Masters. The Torre del Mangia, a 289-foot tall 14th century brick campanile (bell tower) is adjacent to the Palazzo. Climbing to the top is a must for all visitors to Siena. Because of weight restrictions and the narrowness of the stairwell, only twenty-five people are permitted in the tower at any given time. After ascending over three hundred steps, visitors are rewarded with the most dazzling views imaginable—from the tiled roofs below to the rolling hills striped with vineyards, olive groves and cypress trees beyond the city walls. On the opposite side of Il Campo is the ornate Fonte Gaia, a public fountain that has brought water to the piazza since the mid-fourteenth century. The one on display is actually a replica—the original is inside the Santa Maria della Scala, a medieval hospital that’s now a museum.
Another major sight is the Duomo, Siena’s white- and black-marble striped cathedral. Built during the 12th century, it remains one of the greatest examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture in the world. The Duomo contains works by many artists, including Pisano and Donatello, but the highlight is the spectacular inlaid mosaic floor, illustrating scenes from the Old Testament.
I would really love to return to Siena someday. One of the things on my “Bucket List” is to witness Il Palio, a horse race that’s been a tradition since the Middle Ages. Twice a year (on July 2nd and August 16th) thousands of spectators pack the Piazza del Campo as horses from each contrade race around a makeshift track. For days before the big race, the atmosphere of Siena is one of fervent intensity as the people from each contrada prepare for the big event. It’s apparent that the Sienese people have fierce pride in and loyalty to their contrada so it would be an amazing experience to see it first-hand.
Have you been to Siena before? What are your impressions?