Siena? I Luuuv Siena!
|Siena's cathedral: The panforte of Tuscan churches.|
Discover Italy's Siena in the heart of Tuscany with Rick's tour of the city's thriving historic center, starting with Il Campo — the central plaza and site of the annual Palio di Siena horse race.
By Rick Steves
Siena seems to be every Italy connoisseur's pet town. In my office, whenever Siena is mentioned, someone moans, "Siena? I luuuv Siena!"
Siena's thriving historic center, with red brick lanes cascading every which way, offers Italy's best Gothic city experience.
Siena is just 30 miles south of Florence, and most tourists visit as a day trip. Don't. Siena's best experienced after dark. On a quick trip, consider spending three nights in Siena and two full days — one for Siena and one for a grueling whole-day side trip to Florence. While Florence has the blockbuster museums, Siena has an easy-to-enjoy soul.
Siena itself is the main sight. Its essential individual sights come in two clusters: the square (city hall, museum, tower) and the cathedral (with a baptistery, cathedral museum, and surprise viewpoint). Check these sights off, stow your guidebook, and wander. At twilight, as the sky becomes a rich blue dome, Siena becomes an old medieval friend.
For those who dream of a Fiat-free Italy, pedestrians rule in Siena's old center. Sit at a café on the red-bricked main square. Take time to savor the first European city to eliminate automobile traffic from its main square (1966), and then, just to be silly, wonder what would happen if they did it in your city.
Il Campo, Siena's great central piazza, is filled with people and urban harmony at its best. Its gently tilted floor fans upward from the tower and city hall backdrop. The perfect invitation to loiter, think of it as a trip to the beach without sand or water.
In keeping with its reputation as a founding city of Humanism, Siena gathers around its city hall rather than its church. It was a proud republic. Its 100-yard-tall bell tower — the tallest secular medieval tower in Italy — stands like a declaration of independence.
Seven-hundred years ago, Siena was a major military power in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. With 60,000 people, it was even bigger than Paris. In the 14th century, a plague weakened Siena. Then, in the 1550s, her bitter rival Florence really salted her, making Siena forever a non-threatening backwater. Siena's loss became our sightseeing gain, as its political and economic irrelevance pickled it purely Gothic. Today, Siena's population is still 60,000 compared to Florence's 420,000.
Siena and Florence have always been competitive. How competitive? In medieval times a statue of Venus stood on Il Campo. After the plague hit Siena, monks blamed the pagan statue. The people cut it to pieces and buried it along the walls of Florence.
Siena's cathedral — the panforte of churches — is as Baroque as Gothic gets. The striped facade is piled with statues and ornamentation; its interior is decorated from top to bottom. The heads of 172 popes peer down from the ceiling as if enthralled by the abundance of art. Nicolo Pisano's fanciful pulpit is crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling from 1268.
To understand why Bernini is considered the greatest Baroque sculptor, step into his sumptuous Cappella della Madonna del Voto (1659). Notice the two Bernini statues: St. Jerome playing the crucifix like a violinist lost in beautiful music, and Mary Magdalene immersed in spiritual ecstasy. It's enough to make a Lutheran light a candle.
Nearby await two Michelangelo statues and Donatello's bronze St. John the Baptist, in his famous rags.
The persistent and feisty spirit of the town's 17 neighborhoods is uniquely Sienese. Each even has its own historical museum. This pride is evident any time of year in the colorful neighborhood banners and parades. (If you hear distant drumming, run to it for the medieval action and whirling flags.) But neighborhood pride is most visible twice a year — on July 2 and August 16 — when they have their world-famous horse race, the Palio di Siena.
|Spectators jam Siena's piazza for the Palio.|
|After winning the Palio, the victorious neighborhood jams its church waving medieval banners and singing soccer-like anthems.|
Sorry to be graphic, but walking around Siena an hour after the race, it was undeniable: the entire city had just enjoyed a simultaneous medieval orgasm. After days of foreplay, the climax was a three-minute horse race called the Palio.
The Palio is a local happening — not a tourist event — as the fiercely competitive neighborhoods converge into the main square for this short frenzied race.
Ten of the 17 neighborhoods compete, chosen by lot, hurling themselves with medieval abandon into several days of trial races and traditional revelry. On the big day, Il Campo is stuffed to the brim with locals and tourists, as the horses charge wildly around the square in this literally no-holds-barred race. The grand prize: simply proving their neighborhood is numero uno.
Packed onto the square with 60,000 people who each really want to win, you won't see much but you'll feel plenty. While the actual Palio jams the city, you could side trip in from Florence to see horse-race trials each of the three days before race day (usually at 9 a.m. and 7:30 p.m.).
The Palio is a powerfully and strangely pure medieval moment. It's not some folkloristic event. Tourism is submerged by the euphoria. There is no corporate sponsorship cluttering this event. Work schedules are juggled so the real Sienese have the night off.
Those belonging to the winning neighborhood are a tiny minority. But, since each neighborhood has a bitter enemy and nine out of ten of these lose, most Sienese find a reason to feel victorious — celebrating their enemy's loss.
After the event, the entire town feels like smoking a cigarette. The winning neighborhood, the scene of grand celebrations afterward, fills its church with candles and waving banners and sings soccer-like anthems. The ruffled and exhilarated mobs gradually slip back into the 21st century and life returns to normal. Within 24 hours the dirt track and barricades are gone and the city is systematically cleaned up. The race becomes a fond memory, played and replayed on local TV.