Siena is by far one of Italy’s most beautiful medieval cities, well worth a trip even if you are only in Tuscany for a few days. I returned to Siena for a week recently, at times remembering an earlier trip there about 30 years ago. The place has changed on the outskirts of town. The train station has undergone a well-deserved upgrade to the 21st century, complete with escalator, elevator and moving sidewalk. Although I must admit it is still a bit of a challenge to get into the heart of the old town. Pack light!
Of course the town is known for its Campo, that famous fan-shaped, steeply banked central piazza where the Palio horse race is run every July and August. The Campo is dominated by the red brick Palazzo Pubblico (Civic Palace) and its tower, Torre del Mangia (Tower of Eating), so called because its architect, Giovanni di Duccio, who was also its first guardian, was widely known to have squandered his earnings by eating and drinking his way through many Sienese osterie (taverns).
The Palazzo Pubblico, like the city’s Duomo, was built at the end of the 1200’s and the beginning of the 1300’s, during the time when the Council of Nine ruled. It is the Sala del Mappamondo (the Room of the World Map) and the Sale della Pace (the Room of Peace) that are the palace’s highlights: Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s paintings “Allegories of Good and Bad Government,” are often considered the most important cycle of secular paintings in the Middle Ages.
The singularly amazing black and white striped Duomo is full of treasures, including marble pavement and the Piccolomini library frescoes. There is also a first-rate Pinacoteca (art museum), and the Duomo’s crypt and baptistery, which have some beautiful paintings and frescos—heck, even the main tourist office sports some lovely frescos!
Still what I enjoy most is just walking around the city, seeing the medieval buildings that are so well preserved, and observing wealth in action. Siena, like many cities in Italy, is sustained by tourism. One senses that the Sienese citizens, known since the Middle Ages for their expertise in money lending and offering lodging and sustenance to pilgrims en route to Rome, continue to be experts in buying and selling goods profitably and caring for “modern-day” pilgrims.
The true downside of this adventure is the large number of jostling tourists and way, way too many cars, vans and trucks in what is supposed to be a pedestrian area. The civic fathers should be ashamed of not stepping up to this problem. A bookbinder and local artist asked me to write to the city rulers on Facebook and scold them about this problem.
Siena is said to have been founded by Senius, son of Remus, who together with his brother, Romulus, were the two legendary founders of Rome. Thus the she-wolf who suckled Remus and Romulus is found on many statues throughout the city; so far my count is up to seven, although I found someone on the Internet who had counted and photographed 11.
We have enjoyed renting a somewhat high-end apartment right in the center of the old town, less than a five-minute walk from the Campo. We have cooked most of our meals in order to save a bit of money, assisted by excellent grocery stores. It is easy to buy fresh pasta or to make your own risotto adding local produce or porcini.
The most photographed store in town seems to be a small market, Antica Pizzicheria de Miccoli, that goes back several hundred years, saying that they are the fifth oldest in the world (how do they know?). They specialize in porchetta panini (roast pork sandwiches), and have wisely branched out to make many other kinds of sandwiches. The market also sells first-rate local wine, with shopkeepers offering to open the bottle and provide elegant wine glasses for your enjoyment.
About the Author
Marjorie Eisenach has traveled Italy extensively via numerous trips over the past 40 years, and resided in the country for nearly two years. She currently lives in Minneapolis where she teaches Italian language courses and helps American and British travelers prepare for visiting Italy. For more information, visit www.ItalyandItalian.com.