I’ve already relayed my less than stellar March, but it did end on a very good note. Spring had just arrived, birds were singing, flowers were blooming, the sky was a promising blue, and I was planning our escape mission to redeem my bad month. My only goal was to go somewhere pretty that we haven’t been before. Siena was an easy choice. Less than a three hour drive from Rome, famous city center, doable with an overnight stay, and it’s in the middle of postcard perfect Tuscany. Sold.
Growing up in Texas, I hated roadtrips when I was kid. My parents would drag me and my brother to Austin, Houston, and Galveston on a fairly regular basis to visit family. I loved the destinations, but as a child there was no worse torture than staring out at the fields and trees for hours upon hours, my parents singing to classic rock in the background. It usually ended in my brother and I waging war in the backseat, we were good at that.
In adulthood though, I live for roadtrips. They satisfy my restless nature and remind us there is a world outside our daily bubble. And not to brag, but we’ve gotten really good at them. We know what snacks to bring, which gas station is fastest, which routes to ignore, which overnight bag, and most important – which playlists. So it was cockiness that lead to me forgetting two essential things, my passport and the memory card in my camera. The passport issue was a serious bonehead move. We were able to smooth it out with a photocopy that happened to be in my weekender along with a lot of other identification. (You would never be able to get away with this as a foreign tourist, they want the real thing, I happened to have other Italian identification that helped.) The memory card I’m more upset about because I was taking pictures without it for half a day. Now all of my sunny afternoon pictures of the Tuscan hills and rustic farmhouses are gone. I’m still swallowing this bitter pill, hard lesson learned. All surviving images were captured with phones.
We stayed at Palazzo Ravizza at the edge of the city center. We chose it for the free parking and for the garden with the killer views. Stay here, it’s a vacation in itself.
Our first order of business after checking in was to sit on the terrace and drink wine. Leaving us to talk about silly things and ponder the rugged gentility of the Tuscan terrain. The hills of near vertical farmland, red roofed farmhouses perched precariously above valleys, and gangs of signature Cyprus trees with the distant lavender mountains in the background was just too much. We sat there for over an hour and could have made an entire of trip of just watching the shadows move with the sun. But we had a city to see.
After we pulled ourselves together we strolled through medieval streets to the center.
Navigating narrow alleys we window shopped galleries, grabbed a late afternoon gelato and made a few inquiries about where to buy a memory card (one shop, it was closed.) We ended up in the main town square of Siena called Piazza del Campo.
This huge space is the mother of all piazzas, and as lovely as it is, pictures don’t really do it justice. In the early evenings, people of all ages gather in the cafes, sit on the warm bricks of the center, or simply stroll the perimeter socializing and people watching. It feels more like a park then a piazza. Towering above it all is the Palazzo Publico.
This is unique because most piazzas are centered around a church or a royal palace. This building is the town hall that housed the city’s republican government. The tower was a slightly later addition to the building and was designed to be taller than rival Florence’s tower.
But what makes Piazza del Campo famous is the Palio. Since the 1600s, every July and August the seventeen official neighborhoods or contrade, compete in a barebacked horse race that circles 3 times around the packed piazza. The winner gets a silk banner, bragging rights, and city-wide fame. To see how transformed the piazza is during the palio and get an idea what the race is watch this short video. It also shows a bit of the neighborhood flags and mascots, my favorite is the porcupine.
We joined the crowd for an aperitivo at one of the cafes.
No, we weren’t drinking fanta. If you want to look like a local, (just for pretend, they know you’re a foreigner), order an Aperol Spritz at a café or bar before heading to a restaurant. The unnatural orange color makes it look like it’s syrupy sweet but it’s actually quite dry with just a touch of sweetness. A typical spritz in Italy these days is made with Aperol – an orange flavored bitter light alcohol, prosecco, club soda, ice and an orange slice, sometimes an olive too. It’s cool and refreshing, meant to cleanse your palate before dinner. For more info and recipe click here.
We had dinner at a typical Italian establishment that seemed well liked, and ate too much before promptly passing out. I would like to say that the too big meal and all the wine guaranteed the perfect night’s rest but it didn’t. Bizarrely, half the night groups of teenage girls trotted up and down the street singing and chanting/cheering loudly. I will never know what that was about, but it was entertaining seeing our Italian neighbors yelling and shaking their fists outside their windows.
The next day was another beautiful day. (No rain on this trip, the streak is broken.) I wanted to go straight to the Duomo, but because it was a Sunday, the church wasn’t open to tour until 1:30. No worries though, between the shopping, museums, restaurants, palazzos and cooking classes there is no reason to be bored. So after an impulse pottery purchase we headed a few blocks over back to Palazzo Publico.
Pictures are not allowed inside, which always irks me, but whatever. If you get a chance, check it out. The rooms are a guilded, carved, frescoed, inlaid history lesson. I particularly liked The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, dating back to the 1300s. The fresco depicts good government and its effects, opposite bad government and its effects. Good government is ruled by peace and justice with pretty people dancing in the streets. Bad government is ruled by a horned gentleman sitting on a throne over his companions that are torturing babies and stroking pet serpents, all while the city crumbles. I think we can all agree that is bad government.
We had the option to walk the steps up the tower for a few extra euros. We didn’t because I was impatient to see the church. I regret that now, next time we’re climbing that tower.
We bid farewall for now to the piazza since we planned on leaving after the Duomo.
It’s not the biggest, grandest, or oldest church but I think the Siena Cathedral is my choice for best church at the moment. Worth waiting until 1:30.
The interior is just so dramatic. The marble stripped columns and walls, the intricately inlaid floors, the menacing looking pope busts that look down on you from high above, it’s a lot to take in. My advice is to go slowly and think about everything this nearly 800 year old church has seen. Think crusades, black death, renaissance, reformation, and countless governments. Grim, but the darkness of this church seems to invite thoughts of its past, or maybe it was all the history books I had been reading at the time.
Don’t miss the small entrance on the left side of the cathedral. Through that small door is the entrance to the Piccolomini Library. Small room, covered in bright frescoes and displaying gorgeous hand painted books of psalms.
We had to get back home, so our short trip was over, but we plan on returning. Siena just has this charming polished medieval feel that we want to visit again and again. Next time I’m remembering my memory card….and climbing that tower.
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