On the other side of the Chianti countryside, some 35 miles south of Florence, you will find Siena, a Tuscan town rife with tradition and mood.
WHERE: Medieval Siena is best known as the site of the Palio, a twice-yearly, bareback horserace that takes place in the wide, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. The race, which can be traced as far back as the early 13th century, pits a rotating roster of 10 of the city’s 17 contrade (neighborhoods) against one another. Run on July 2 and August 16, the Palio is Siena’s most famous local event, which today draws scads of spectators from all over Italy and abroad. Indeed, the Palio is a hot ticket: Learn how to book tickets for the Palio.
Post pageantry, Siena is a gloriously Gothic prize for pedestrians; the compact city center is car-free and quiet enough to hear the cobblestones resonate underfoot.
WHAT TO DO: In addition to the Palio, Siena’s cityscape awes, with art and architecture around every bend. The tight warren of shadowy streets empties into Piazza del Campo, one of the finest medieval squares in Europe. Divided into nine sectors–a nod to the Council of Nine who ruled the city during the Middle Ages–the shell-shaped piazza serves as a meeting point, playground, and outdoor dining venue.
At the base of the shell lies the Palazzo Pubblico, a result of Siena’s construction boom in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The Humanist “palace of the people” houses two masterpieces by native son Simone Martini and an amusing fresco series depicting good and bad government practices.
Next door to the Palazzo Pubblico rises the Torre del Mangia, which, at the height of 330 feet, is one of the tallest bell towers in Italy. Climb the 505 steps to the top and enjoy the views of rooftops and the Campagna Senese (Sienese countryside).
Also within view from the tower is Siena’s spectacular Duomo, a massive, black-and-white striped cathedral renowned for its interior pavements. The pavements are usually unveiled in their entirety in September. However, a small portion of the 56 floor panels featuring sybils, angels, saints, and biblical scenes, are visible to viewers on a rotating basis throughout the year.
Finally, if you want to endear yourself to some of the locals, pay a visit to one—or several—of Siena’s 17 contrada museums. On proud display are banners, relics, and costumes from Palio contests of yore. The tourist office in Piazza del Campo can provide you a map to each neighborhood. For a really good explanation of the contrade, their history, and what’s on view in their museums, see this article of Siena’s Contrada Museums from In Italy Online.
LODGING: There are tons of agriturismo (farm stay) inns and self-catering options on the outskirts of Siena, ideal if you’re touring Tuscany by car. Retreat to the well-appointed Hotel Santa Caterina (Via Enea Silvio Piccolomini, 7), which is set just outside the Porta Romana, or stay in Villa Scacciapensieri (Strada di Scacciapensieri, 10), a country hotel north of town where you can “forget your troubles” by enjoying vistas of the rooftops and towers Siena as well as the surrounding valley. If you want to stay in town, consider Hotel Duomo (Via Stalloreggi, 38) because its upper floors offer rooftop views.
DINING: Siena’s culinary landscape reflects its rustic roots: think roasted meats, lots of herbs, and simple peasant fare. But the city is also home to a university, so cheap eats and wine bars abound. Osteria Le Logge (Via del Porrione, 33), changes its menu daily, and offers more than a dozen options for lunch and dinner. Osteria La Sosta di Violante (Via di Pantaneto, 115) serves up traditional fare in a casual atmosphere a few blocks from Piazza del Campo. Primi piatti, such as ravioli with red chicory, start at around $16. An enoteca (wine bar) option is Trombicche (Via delle Terme, 66), which offers good wine by the glass, tasting platters of salumi, cheeses, and antipasti (ideal for a snack), and a convivial atmosphere.
GETTING THERE: Fly into Rome’s Fiumicino Airport or Pisa’s Galileo Galilei Airport. If you take the train from either of these destinations to Siena, the trip will last approximately two to three hours, with at least one connection on the way. A better bet is to rent a car from the airport. The A1 autostrada is a direct route from Rome to Florence; Siena is about halfway between the two cities. The SS-222 from Florence to Siena provides a more scenic route past the olive groves and vineyards of Chianti.
INFORMATION: For more ideas about what to do and where to stay and eat in Siena, see the Siena Tourism website.
Photo © delphaber