Siena, Unburnt

Another recap of my Italian vacation. This stop: Siena, the medieval tourist attraction.

Palazzo PubblicoWhen I was planning to go to Italy (I did mention that I went to Italy, right?) I got about a dozen recommendations that I visit Siena, a city in Tuscany southeastsouthwest of Florence. I’m grateful for the recommendations, because it was my favorite part of the entire trip.

I’d had an unrealistically idyllic preconception about the city before I left; I’d pictured some tiny village in the countryside surrounding a small fort-like town square. It’s not like that, although I’m sure there’s plenty of that atmosphere just a short distance away. Instead, it’s a fairly big city with some amazing architecture and a bustling tourist economy. It feels like a perfectly preserved medieval city: walking through the narrow, hilly streets surrounded by tall buildings, it’s easy to imagine yourself living in Italy in the late 13th century.

I realize I got a skewed perception of everywhere I went, since I kept myself to tourist-centric areas, but Siena seemed to be driven by day-trippers. I woke up one morning — it was unavoidable, since you’re assaulted by various bell towers going off at 7:30 AM — and walked through the city and around the city walls. You could see people just starting to get the business of their daily lives squared away before the tour buses started arriving around 10. From that time to dusk, there are waves of people crowding the shops around the Duomo (Cathedral) and Piazza del Campo (town square), shopping, wandering around, making noise and eating ice cream. Around dusk, everything starts to shut down except for the town square, and the city goes back to normal until the next day’s rush of tourism.

The Duomo is amazing — not nearly as large or ostentatious as Florence’s, but covered with astounding detail on every inch of its surface. The same symbols are repeated everywhere — the colors black and white, the coat of arms for the city and its districts, and two babies suckling on a she-wolf — all tying into the city’s history and mythology and making it feel like a place with a very strong identity. I’ve forgotten the details on why black and white are the city’s colors, and I can’t find them online: it has something to do with smoke.

The statues of the she-wolf are from Siena’s origin story. I was wondering why the city would be full of images of Rome’s founding, but apparently this is a spin-off involving Remus’s sons after he was driven north out of Rome and somehow had to be raised by a different wolf. For whatever reason, the Sienese version took hold a lot more strongly than the Roman version.

The horse race around the town square, the Palio, is in August, but there was still plenty of Palio-related material to see. The local channels were running a documentary series interviewing locals with their own stories about the race. And posters, banners, and symbols from the different districts were everywhere. Although the Piazza del Campo is a large (and beautiful) area, I can’t imagine a horse race taking place there; it must be an amazing but manic experience.

Another unexpected highlight of Siena: it was the best gelato I had the whole time. I normally think that coffee-flavored ice cream is one of the most blatant creations of Satan put forth to humans, but I had a serving of Tiramisu-flavored gelato that was like getting an open-mouth kiss from God.

If anyone’s considering a trip (and it comes highly recommended), I’d have two pieces of advice:

  1. Don’t make it a day trip, but stay the night. The city at dusk is beautiful, and wandering around early in the morning gives a much better impression than seeing it in the midst of crowds. I stayed two nights, which was in retrospect overdoing it. One’s enough.
  2. Avoid the restaurants around the Piazza del Campo. They were extremely overpriced and the service was just short of being openly hostile.

So It didn’t turn out to be the peaceful getaway to the Tuscan countryside that I’d expected — the city’s much too interesting for that — but it was still relaxing and a great contrast to Rome and Florence. I’m told there’s any number of bed & breakfasts and small hotels around the area if you want the typical experience of Tuscany, but staying inside the city walls turned out to be perfect for me.

My pictures from the city, mostly the cathedral and town square, are up on Flickr.