Via Francigena – Siena and Saint Catherine

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Siena's memorial to St Catherine

We had happened to be in Siena on the day of the Palio, a fiercely competitive horserace. After visiting Il Campo where preparations were being made for the race later in the day, we found ourselves back at the piazza in front of the Duomo where the procession of the Contrades, representatives of Siena’s seventeen regions, and the skillful flag twirling events were in full swing.

The colourful procession continued for another hour and by then we’d had enough of the jostling crowds. Since we knew that we could watch the remaining events and the actual race on television that evening, we left the centre of Siena and walked up to visit the huge Church of San Domenico. Although dedicated to St. Domenic, the church seemed to function more as a memorial to Saint Catherine, Siena’s own saint.            

Catherine was born in 1347, the youngest child in a family of twenty four children. She experienced her first vision of Jesus when she was eight. As she grew up she refused to marry and continued living with her parents. She eventually attracted a following and began to influence secular and religious leaders.

She persuaded Pope Gregory XI to return from Avignon and re-establish the papacy in Rome. She dug graves for lepers and plague victims. She dictated various treatises, including her most famous The Dialogue.

She received the stigmata while staring at a crucifix and died in distress in 1380 aged thirty three. Catherine was buried in Rome but her head was brought back to Siena. She was named patron saint of Italy alongside St. Francis in 1939.

Her life was pictured in murals on the walls of the church and there was a portrait painted of her during her life. St. Catherine’s head, which had been brought back from Rome was displayed in a tabernacle on the altar of her own chapel.

We left the church of San Domenico and found a café where we could quench our thirsts. Inside, youngsters were watching the preliminaries to the Palio on a large television screen. Carol noticed a young couple enjoying cola coloured drinks from fluted glasses.

Thinking them to be refreshing local draughts we ordered two. The waitress brought two of the drinks which turned out to be glasses of strong black iced coffee, a jolt to our empty stomachs. Thus affected we found the SENA office and bought our bus tickets for tomorrow’s journey to Assisi.

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