Siena – Home of the Palio and Panforte Capital of Italy:
At the heart of central Tuscany lies Siena, a hill town that is famous the world over for its Palio and the Siena cake or panforte. Siena was built on three ridges which converge into the famous scallop-shaped central square, the Piazza del Campo. It’s Roman origin is reflected in the town’s emblem – a she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus.
We were dropped off at the north-western fringe of the historic centre and from there it was a 20-minute stroll through the narrow cobbled streets of Siena down to the vast Piazza del Campo where we met our local guide. But before walking down to the centre of Siena, we paid a quick visit to the Basilica of San Domenico, also known as the Basilica Cateriniana. The church, a pilgrimage destination, contains several relics of St Catherine of Siena, including her head and thumb.
The Sienese-Florentine Rivalry
The first thing that our local guide confessed to us was that the Sienese are crazy people. The city has been at loggerheads with Florence since the Middle Ages and up to this day, some of that rivalry still exists. She joked that hatred of the Florentines is a Sienese national sport.
During the 12th and 13th centuries people were divided between those who supported the Pope (the Guelphs) and those who supported the Roman Emperor (the Ghibellines). Siena, being a Ghibelline city was frequently battling Guelph Florence, with the Battle of Montaperti being immortalized by Dante in his epic poem Divine Comedy.
There was a period of alliance between the two cities during which time a lot of swopping of artistic ideas took place. No doubt to taunt the Florentines, some Sienese would say that they taught the Florentines artistic ideas. During the period of peace and prosperity, both cities became very popular. Siena enjoyed great wealth and power during the early 14th century and the city embarked on the expansion of its cathedral. The planned giant Siena Duomo was supposed to be bigger than St Peters, but the Black Death arrived in 1348 and killed a large portion Siena’s population. Everything ground to a halt and after the plague the town descended into chaos. Siena never really recovered and in the 1500s Florence conquered Siena. This time the Florentines banned Sienese banking and the city declined and fell into ruin. Anyone who wanted to make money went to Florence.
The Revival of Siena
It was in the 1800s, when the Brownings began to write about Siena that tourists started coming to Siena, and the Grand Tour embraced Siena as a city to visit. When the tourists started arriving the locals realized that the city had something to offer and began to restore the place.
It’s been years since we last visited Siena, but standing in the Piazza del Campo, it’s nice to feel a sense of familiarity here. Siena has still kept its medieval contrada system, with each of the seventeen wards represented by an animal or mascot. We arrived just after the August Palio and the streets of Siena were still decorated with flags of the contrade. Mobs of young people were roaming the streets, waving flags and their contrada colours. Although ward rivalries are most rampant during the Palio, our guide said that it can have complications in everyday life as well, such as parents objecting to their children marrying someone from a rival ward.
Siena’s town hall (Palazzo Pubblico) is on the Piazza del Campo. First begun in the 13th century, it holds the Civic Museum. Access is via an enclosed courtyard which itself is worth the trip. Off to the side is the entrance to the Torre del Mangia, another of Siena’s outstanding sights.
Della Quercia’s Fonte Gaia, the only fountain from the Middle Ages, is on Piazza del Campo and also on the square are a few cafes where one can sit and watch the world go by in Siena.
From Piazza del Campo we continued uphill on to the attractive zebra-striped Siena duomo at the highest point of the city. The Siena cathedral is truly something special, both from the external architecture and its interior decoration. Part of the stripey exterior pattern is carried through to the interior with a dazzling array of black and white marble stripes. Even the floors are works of art, covered in mosaics that depict stories from the Bible and other works of mythology.
Attached to the Siena Duomo is Piccolomini Library with its exquisitely painted walls and ceiling and some rare and richly illustrated Renaissance hymn books.
At the Cathedral square you can see the unfinished nave of the cathedral. You can also climb to the top of the unfinished nave but we didn’t have time for this.
You can see more photos of Siena at Travelsignposts Siena photo albums Here.
Shopping in Siena
There are plenty of nice shops along Via di Citta and Via Banchi di Sopra, but I must confess that when in Siena, I only had eyes for siena cake or panforte. Siena is the panforte capital of Italy and one of my missions in this town was to stock up on this cake. If you’re wondering what to buy in Siena, you can see some suggestions Here.
Hotels in Siena
If you’re looking for a luxurious experience in Siena, the Grand Hotel Continental near Salimbeni Square is the poshest hotel in town. Closer to Piazza del Campo there are the B&B Il Corso, the Residenza d’Epoca Palazzo and the Piccolo Hotel Etruria. If you’re visiting in July or August when the Palio is on, it’s advisable to book early. For the list of Siena hotels see Here.
How to Get to Siena
If you’re flying into Italy, the closest international airports to Siena are the Amerigo Vespucci Florence Airport and Galileo Galilei Pisa Airport. You can also reach Siena by train from these two cities. Our coach journey from Perugia to Siena took 1 hr 40 minutes. There are direct buses from various cities to Siena such as: Florence (1 hour journey), Rome (3 hours), Milan (4.5 hours).