You are hereSummer in Siena.
Summer in Siena.
There have always been those who prefer Florence and those who prefer Siena. For me there is no choice. It is Siena every time. Many years ago I fell in love with this most charming of Italian cities; its more relaxed atmosphere and a tranquil beauty than its rival. In the summer, you have to ignore the inevitable hordes of tourists, and meander through the city's narrow streets and around hidden ancient squares. Just absorb the medieval atmosphere and, I guarantee, you will become as besotted with the place as I still am.
Surrounded by a landscape of gentle, rounded hills, enhanced by an ever changing light, which attracts so many artists to Tuscany, and protected by St. Catherine, the Sienese have much to be grateful for. Of course it was not always so.
Supposedly founded by Senio, the son of Remus, one of the two legendary founders of Rome and from whom it takes its name, the city has had a turbulent history. Countries, mercenaries and vying families have fought over it for centuries. But in 1559 it became part of the grand duchy of Tuscany, losing its independence but gaining a degree of relative peace and stability.
The city with a 60,000 population is divided into 17 contrada or city-states. Each contrada has its own constitution, church, patron saint and its own a flag, which one can see hanging proudly from the reddish-brown brick houses in each area. Social and general issues come under the jurisdiction of each individual contrada and because of this it is a safe place to visit. There is very little crime and there are, in contrast to Florence, no beggars in the city.
Initially, if you do not have a specific museum, church or landmark in mind to visit, you will need a guidebook. Despite the centre being small and compact, it is very easy to lose ones bearings in the winding streets and, as the city is built on a cluster of small hillst, there are plenty of ups and downs to test your level of fitness.
I have to admit that over the years I have done them all: Il Duomo, which dominates the city; the 38 rooms and 700 paintings in the Pinacoteca Nazionale; the Museo Civico with its frescos by Lorenzetti and Bartolo; the Palazzo Tolomei, which is said to be still haunted by La Pia, the fragile spirit from Dante’s “Divine Comedy” written in the 14th century. But I continue to return, always to find something interesting or more beautiful, a painting, a sculpture or a small monument, which I have somehow missed. Even if you were fortunate enough to live there, I believe that Siena will never reveal all its treasures to you. If however, I really had to have one favourite work of art in this city, I think it would be The Holy Family with Saint Giovannino, painted by Il Pinturicchio (1454 – 1513) and which is to be seen in the National Picture Gallery.
Shopping in Siena is as enjoyable as the cultural experience. Saunter up and down the Via d’Cita and the Banchi di Sopra and you will see all the exclusive shops and brands, displayed as only the Italians can, with their own elegant and individual style. Feeling faint? Then pop into the Il Nanina, with its scrumptious display of chocolates and cakes. Enjoy an espresso or cappuccino with a slice of the delicious, spicy Sienese cake known as Panpepato, a mixture of honey, fruit, and ginger, almonds, which was supposedly invented by a nun as a pick-me-up.
My own favourite place for a somewhat stronger pick-me-up is in a narrow passage off the Via Banchi di Sopra and under the Arco de’ Ponani. The rustical Il Grattacielo, the Skyscraper, is ironically nicknamed for its low 1.80 meter ceiling and the unsuspecting heads that get scraped on entrance. I am told that this watering hole is the only original inn left in Siena but do not expect a warm welcome. Tourists tend to get short thrift here, so just drink your wine and try and look as though you belong. It is closed on Sundays.
Dining in Siena is a delight. You can eat excellent Tuscan fare where the Sienese prefer to eat and at regular prices. Try the Ristorante “Il Sasso” in the Ala dei Rossi, the Papei family restaurant, Trattoria Papei, in the Paizza del Mercato or the Trattoria Al Vecchio Forno, in the via Piazzola. For something more rustic, nearby are enough tavernas, where you can get an excellent two or three course lunch, with wine, for 20 Euros.
Should you wish to see and be seen then head for the Piazzo del Campo. A shell shaped, semi circular square, with its herringbone pattern of brick paving, dating back to 1347, is a masterpiece of medieval architecture. Take another coffee or an aperitif in one of the restaurants and cafes facing the town hall with its famous 100m tall tower, the Torre del Mangia, and observe the comings and goings of both the tourists and the Sienese.
It is in this square that probably the most famous and certainly one of the most dangerous horse races in the world is run. Il Palio, as it is known, is more than just another horse race; it is - since 1310 - a celebration in honour of the Blessed Virgin. On July 2 and August 16, the two days in each year when you will either want to be in Sienna or far away from it. Sunto, the great bell in the Mangia tower will be rung to announce to the citizens and the many thousands of spectators who will be filling Sienna to overflowing, that the Palio is about to get underway. The competing horses and jockeys are from each of the 17 contrada and the emotions evoked between them are considerable and have been for centuries. If you can, for little more than one minute, (that is all the time the race takes) forget the poor horses and admire the spectacular or ritual, you will be watching history.
There is little or no night life for the young in this enchanting but conservative city but should you be there on a Sunday and, having had your fill of history and culture, you might want to try the small cafe, - whose name I have never learned - at the corner of the Arco de’ Panani, where in the late afternoon, in the upstairs bar, off-duty Latin American maids and nurses meet to listen and dance to their cumbias, meringues. But do not forget that they are there under the protection of St. Catherine - patron saint of nurses and sexual temptation.