Inspiration always seems to find me when I’m not looking and that is exactly what happened as I settled in to watch a few minutes of television last night. Lucky for me, I clicked over to Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports, a show on ESPN that puts sports into a cultural context. One of the segments was on the…
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
We hope you’ve had an enjoyable August. Obviously, we took a little time off for rest and relaxation (and a move!), so there’s been little time to fill you in on some of the latest Italy travel news. Here’s a recap:
Some people in Rome think it’s a good idea to create a Disneyland-like theme park outside the city. Could this possibly be a good idea? I can’t imagine Italians wanting to pay money for a bit of Italian-style Americana in their backyard, nor can I see tourists skipping the real Roman tourist attractions to see another Euro-Disney. Yuck.
On August 16, the Bruco contrada won Siena’s Palio Horserace. Congratulations, Caterpillar! Lots of Palio history and trivia here.
There have been two articles on Sardinia’s coast. The New York Times’ Seth Sherwood writes about the Costa Smeralda (Emerald Coast), claiming that An Elite Playground Becomes Less So, while The Guardian ran a feature on Sardinia’s Overlooked Beaches.
And, some art news caught our attention. In Rome, through September 7, looted Roman antiquities that have recently been returned to Italy will be on display at the Palazzo Poli (near the Trevi Fountain). And, beginning on September 7, those interested in Etruscan art and relics should head to Cortona, where Etruscan art from the Hermitage will be on loan to the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona (MAEC).
We should be getting back on track this week, so stay tuned!
Lots of summer festivals are winding up this month. Then, after Ferragosto on August 15, most Italians head for the hills…or the beach. Stay tuned for a full slate of fall events beginning next month.
Puccini Festival. This festival in Torre del Lago (near Lucca, Tuscany) is a must for opera buffs. It runs through August 23.
Tuscan Sun Festival. Does Frances Mayes hear the sound “ca-ching” every time this arts festival takes place in Cortona? Anyhow, it runs through August 10.
Art in Rome. There are plenty of opportunities to cool off indoors at Rome’s many art exhibits in August: The Renaissance of the Arts from Donatello to Perugino at Museo del Corso (through Sept. 7); 15th Rome Quadriennale at the Palazzo delle Esposizioni, which showcases 100 contemporary Italian artists and highlights the sculptures of Luciano Fabro (through Sept. 14); City Life 1930-2007 at the Museo di Roma Palazzo Braschi is a collection of 200 photos of Rome street life through the years (through Sept. 21); Coreggio and the Artists of Ancient Times is a comparative study of Coreggio paintings and the artists from ancient times at the Galleria Borghese (though Sept. 14); Vietnam photographs from Italian photographer Ennio Iacobucci at the Museo di Roma in Trastevere (through Sept. 14); and many, many more exhibitions.
In my opinion, Financial Times columnist Jancis Robinson provides some of the best, most accessible coverage of wine anywhere. This past weekend, in the FT Life & Arts Section, Robinson looks at the 2006 vintage of Chianti Classico as “something to celebrate.” Apparently, this is the first year that “white wine grapes have been outlawed” from the making of Chianti Classico. Indeed, up until 2006, Chianti was a blend of white (mostly Trebbiano) and red (mostly Sangiovese) grapes. Robinson gives an interesting primer on the former and current production of Chianti – the wine made in the mini-region between Florence and Siena – and also makes suggestions for the best Chianti buys.
Here are her picks:
Taste of Tuscany: Classic Classicos
●Badia a Coltibuono
Principe Corsini, Le Corte (£)
San Fabiano Calcinaia
●Castello di Ama
●Castello di Meleto (£)
●Casanuova di Nittardi
A GOOD VALUE 2004
●Il Poggiolino (£)
●denotes a particularly traditional, lively style
(£) denotes especially good value
Photo © photo_nuevo