No trip to Tuscany is complete without seeing Siena, Florence’s historical rival
According to legend, the city was founded by Senius and Aschius, the sons of Remus and nephews of Romulus, boys saved from the Tiber river by a she-wolf, who were the main characters of Rome’s foundation myth. Senius and Aschius fled from Rome following their father’s murder by Romulus. They took with them a statue of a she-wolf suckling two infants, which became a symbol of the new city.
Piazza Del Campo – the heart of the city
Siena’s majestic historical centre is a UNESCO world heritage site and brimming with stunning examples of art and architecture. The true heart of the city is Piazza Del Campo. This unique shell-shaped “square” is a meeting place for locals and tourists alike and the best place to soak up the atmosphere of this enchanting Tuscan city. The Campo is dominated by the red Palazzo Pubblico and its striking tower, Torre del Mangia.The Civic museum in the Palazzo offers some of the greatest of Sienese paintings and some spectacular frescos depicting the role of government. The 88m tower was built to the same height as Siena’s cathedral, to emphasise equal power between the church and the state. The brave can climb over 400 steps for dizzying views of the city and the lush countryside of “Chiantishire.”
Santa Maria Assunta – a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque Gothic architecture
Siena’s 12th century pink and white marble Cathedral, dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta, is considered a masterpiece of Italian Romanesque Gothic architecture.
The interior features elaborate marble floors, important frescos by Ghirlandaio, works by Donatello and Lorenzo Ghiberti and one of Italy’s finest pulpits, created by Nicola Pisano, featuring lion pedestals and fascinating biblical bas-relief panels. And don’t miss the Piccolomini Library, with its spectacular frescoes by Pinturicchio and statue of the Three Graces. It is also possible to take a tour to the “Porta del Cielo” (“Gate of Heaven”) and witness the starry vault of the cathedral up close.
Saint Catherine of Siena, joint patron saint of Italy with Saint Francis of Assisi and one of the 6 patron saints of Europe, is venerated in the Sanctuary bearing her name. Here you can see the Crucifix from where she received her stigmata. The imposing church of San Domenico houses the grisly relics of her mummified head and thumb in an ornate reliquary.
Dining here is heaven on earth
Anyone seeking sustenance will find dining heaven on earth in Siena. Try pici, long thick pasta, smothered in ragu or simple tomato sauce and pappardelle with rich wild boar sauce. Soups are simple and delicious, such as pappa al pomodoro, with bread and tomatoes or ribollita with black cabbage, carrots, onions and celery. Wild boar, hare, pheasant and roast pork are typical Sienese dishes. These should all be washed down with a fine local red wine such as a Chianti Classico, Rosso di Montepulciano or Brunello di Montalcino, which is widely considered the finest wine in Italy. The Enoteca Italiana situated in the Medici Fortress, has an impressive range of over 1,000 Italian wines and experts are on hand to advise you what to taste.
The madness of “Il Palio” – twice!
Siena’s most important event is without a doubt “Il Palio”, a bareback horse race, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, which takes place on 2nd July and 16th August. The city is divided into 17 rival “contrade” or districts, each represented by a symbol or animal, including the caterpillar, seashell, unicorn, goose and forest. Each district is decorated with sculptures, designs and flags featuring its particular symbol, especially in the weeks leading up to the event.
Only 10 of the contrade may take part in each race, the 7 which did not compete in the corresponding month of the previous year, and another 3 who are chosen by lottery. The frenetic race consists of 3 laps of Piazza Del Campo, where a dirt track is laid, and usually lasts no longer than 90 seconds.
Costume parades, flag-waving and singing
Preparations for the the Palio last for months and in the days before, members of the various districts fill the streets with costume parades, flag-waving and singing. On the day of the race, the jockey takes his horse into his local parish church and receives a blessing. It is considered good luck if the horse leaves manure in the church. Bribery amongst jockeys is common before the race, and during the race itself, jockeys are free to hit their horses, and those of their rivals, with whips called “nerbi”.
The winner is the first horse over the finishing line, even if it is without a rider. The horse that comes second is considered the loser. The victorious contrada is awarded “Il Palio” a specially designed silk banner bearing an image of the Virgin Mary. Festivities continue for days after, many celebrating if rival districts lose or do badly in the race.
If you wish to visit Siena during the Palio, make sure you book well in advance and be prepared to pay up to €350 for a good vantage spot, which must be booked months before, or crowd into a free spot in Piazza del Campo hours before the race starts.
A good strategic base for visiting the Chianti area
Siena is a good strategic base for visiting the surrounding Chianti area. Highlights include the hill towns of Montalcino and Montepulciano, renowned for their wines. The medieval town of San Gimignano is famous for its rival families who tried to outdo each other by building taller and taller towers. Only 13 of the original 76 survive but the whole town is a UNESCO world heritage site. Well worth a visit too is the imposing roofless gothic abbey of San Galgano, about 30km from Siena. A short walk from here leads to the miniscule chapel of Montesiepi, which features the Italian version of the sword in the stone.
The ideal place for savouring the finer things in life
Siena is the ideal place for savouring the finer things in life: food, wine and human creativity, reflected in her art and architecture. For a perfect evening, stroll around the medieval streets after dinner and head for Piazza del Campo, where you can stretch out on its magnificent pavement, gaze at the stars and savour the distinctive Tuscan surroundings.
How to get to Siena:
By Plane: The Nearest airports are Pisa and Florence.
By Bus: The SITA bus line runs frequently from Florence to Siena. Take a “rapide” (express) bus, which takes about 60 minutes. The Tra-In service runs from Pisa airport to Siena. It is much easier to get to Siena from Florence rather than Pisa.
By Train: Trains run frequently from Florence and take about 90 minutes. Trains from Rome are less frequent and you have to change at Chiusi. The centre of Siena is about 1.5km uphill from the train station. There are local buses to the centre.
By Car: From Rome take the A1 Roma-Firenze highway- exit Valdichiana. From Florence take the SS222 or the SS2 superstrada Siena/Firenze
Cars are not allowed into the historical centre. Free parking is very limited.
Eating and drinking
The majority of the bars and restaurants on Piazza Del Campo are tourist traps. Unlike in some other places in Italy, restaurants tend to close on the earlier side, so make sure you go for dinner by 9pm.
Pizzicheria de Miccoli
Via di Città 95 0577 289164
You can’t miss it, a wild boar head stands on guard outside, for fine Tuscan hams and salamis and Pecorino cheese.
La Terra di Siena
Via G. Dupré, 32 0577 223528
This shop has cheaper pickings of traditional regional food
Antica Drogheria Manganeli
Via di Città , 71-73 0577280002
For traditional sweets and cakes
Via dei Fusari, 9-13 0577 280207
You can watch sweets being made here.
Via Banchi di Sotto, 25
Serves delicious crispy slices to take away.
Bar IL Palio
Il Campo 46-49 0577 282055
A great position for people watching and prices are not extortionate.
Piazza Libertà 1, 0577228811
Has an impressive range of over 1,000 Italian wines and experts are on hand to advise you what to taste.
Hosteria Il Carroccio
Via del Casato di Sotto 32, 0577 41165
A tiny place which serves generous portions
Osteria Nonna Gina
Via Pian dei Mantellini, 0577287247
Good home cooking.
Trattoria Da Dino
Via Casato di Sopra 71, 0577 289036
Tasty traditional dishes
Via Salicotto, 69 +39 577287548
A great family-run place with fabulous food.
Antico Osteria Da Divo
Via Franciosa 29, 0577-284381
Here you can eat amongst old Etruscan tombs and medieval brick walls.
San Paolo Pub
Vicolo San Paolo, 2
A lively pub which has a tiny balcony overlooking Piazza Del Campo.
Via di Porta Giustizia,1
Ideal for a cocktail and has jazz and cabaret nights.
Buena Vista Social Pub
Via Pantaneto, 105
A more alternative atmosphere can be found here. Try one of their delicious ginger mojitos.
Where to stay
If you’re feeling indulgent, The Grand Hotel Continental (Via Dei Banchi di Sopra, 85, 0577 56011) is a converted papal palace and a real treat. Hotel Duomo (Via Stalloreggi 38, 0577 289088) makes a good base for exploring. The Piccolo Hotel Etruria (Via delle Donzelle, 3, 0577 288088) is basic and central.