Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Siena, and our failure to see cultural events

Siena is a beautiful Tuscan city, a UNESCO world heritage site dominated by Gothic architecture.  It is perhaps most well known for the Palio, a frantic horse race around the central square held twice a year.  On July 2nd and August 16th.

What day did we go to Rome?  July 2nd.

What day did we go to Siena?  July 5th.

Really should have planned that better...

Despite missing the cultural event of the year, this was my favourite city we visited.  After the madness of Rome, stepping off the bus onto narrow cobbled, winding streets was very refreshing.  Siena is still a tourist trap, but a beautiful, historic one so it is worth it.

Legend has it that Siena was founded by the son of Remus, Senius, though in all likelihood it already existed by Roman times, and was named after the Etruscan family Saina.  Regardless of it's true origins, the image of the twins suckling the she-wolf is as ever-present as in Rome.

There is an intense rivalry between Siena and Florence, and this has gone back to the 12th century AD, during which several wars broke out between the two provinces.  In 1230, Florence lay siege to Siena and catapulted donkeys over the walls!  When I read that I recalled that Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene with the cow and the chickens...I imagine it was similar.

Siena passed between many rulers over the years.  It prospered under the Council of Nine in the latter half of the 13th century, which was when the majority of the great public buildings sprung up, and became important as a money lending city.  It also enjoyed a good period in the 16th century, under the Petrucci family.  However, the family that left the most lasting impression was the Medici family, despite this takeover prompting a decline in prosperity and power.

The Medici were a banking family; the Medici Bank was widely known throughout Europe, and the Medici family themselves became the richest in the continent.  When they took over Siena, they banned the city's residents from operating their own lending services, and when the Medici Bank fell, Siena fell too.

But this was a blessing in disguise.  Unlike in other, wealthier cities, Siena could not afford to undertake any major construction or demolition works, and the city's historical buildings remained untouched.  During World War II, Siena was unable to mount a strong army, and the French were able to take it without causing too much damage to the town centre.  This has resulted in an almost entirely preserved walled city, complete with pristine Duomo and intact churches.

After dropping our bags in the excellent Casa di Antonella, we set off to see the sights, but first we had to make a very important stop: it was espresso o'clock.

If you want coffee in Siena, the place to go is Nannini's.  This pasticcerie is a Sienese institution, serving excellent espresso and wonderful cakes and traditional spiced Tuscan panforte.  The Nannini family are an important family in Siena - not only do they own the oldest pasticcerie, but one of the family members is a rockstar, and another previously worked for Gucci (before coming back and taking over the family business, obviously).

Having knocked back our espresso in authentic Italian style (hot, strong, and with at least one sugar), we set off to the Duomo.

Built in the 13th century, the Duomo di Siena is a magnificent black and white striped affair, reflecting the black and white flag of the city.  Inside, the entire floor is covered by a mosaic (many of which are kept covered at various times of the year to preserve them.

Then, it was lunchtime.  We felt very refreshed after a salame toscane di pecorino sandwich and some panna cotta and straccitella gelato, while we sat people watching in the Piazza del Campo (more on that later).

Our ticket for the Duomo also gave us access to five other sights in Siena.  Unlike the other major Tuscan towns, the Battistero de San Giovanni (Baptistry of St John) was built in the same construct as the Duomo, though it does have a separate entrance.  After that, we went to the crypts, the walls of which were covered in 13th century frescoes depicting Jesus's life, and only discovered within the last decade.  Finally, we walked through the Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana and hauled ourselves up the narrow 131-step spiral staircase to the Panorama del Facciatone, which offered fantastic views across the city.

After our allocated ten minutes at the top of the cathedral, we walked/fell back down the staircase and headed back to the Piazza del Campo (Il Campo) for some grub.

Il Campo is the centre of Siena.  The building at the bottom is the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall), with it's 100m high Torre del Mangia, and the paving of the square in front is split into nine, to represent the Council of Nine from the 14th century.  This is the site of the aforementioned Palio race.

Surrounding the edges of the piazza are various restaurants and bars, with menus and prices aimed at visiting tourists.  However, we decided to dine here to soak in some of the Il Campo atmosphere, which is almost carnival-like.  I chose some of the local delicacy - pici all'aglione.  Pici is a thick spagetti-style pasta, so even when drenched in sauce the pasta taste comes through.  It is rich and intensely satisfying.  We washed this down with a half litre of bianco toscano while some local kids marched around the square banging drums, waving flags and, inexplicably, sucking dummies.  We never did work out what that was about.

Then it was back home to bed (via the nearest gelateri, of course!).

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