Italy : 10 reason why you must go to Siena

The view from our apartment overlooking the Piazza del Campo.

I’ve just had two weeks in Siena and loved every minute of it.

We decided go to language school in Italy and found what sounded like a great school in Siena. It turned out to be excellent. We choose Siena because it’s not too big and it’s not too small with about 50,000 residents, but believe me the numbers swell with the daily influx of tourists. People flock to this UNESCO site for its medieval cityscape, iconic Piazza, cathedral, Palio horse races cuisine, art and museums.

Siena roof tops with the cathedral in the background.

It’s the first time we’ve based ourselves somewhere for a period of time and tried to blend in with the locals, but our dreams where quickly squashed when a taxi driver told us he’d been living in Siena for 35 years and was not considered a ‘local’ because he wasn’t born here. You’re born into a ‘contrade,’ or city quarter, so without a ‘contrade’ you’re not a local, simple as that!  It’s the ‘contrades’ that compete in the Palio horse races. To read more about the Palio…

1.Experience the Piazza Del Campo, the heart of Siena

Where ever you are staying in the old part of the city, you’ll be a short walk to the heart of this town – the Piazza del Campo commonly referred to as Il Campo. Our apartment over looked the piazza so I spent many an hour people gazing.

It’s a huge fan-shaped piazza with a gentle gradient. It’s still the principal public space in Siena and is considered one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares. The unusual shape came about because the piazza was built on the intersection of the three main roads leading to and from Siena.

Enjoying a drink in the Piazza del Campo with my favs.

Each afternoon we would climb down our five flights of stairs for a beer or Aperol Spritz (the most popular drink in Italy) and watch the world go by with the pigeons!

Italy’s number  1 drink, Aperol Spritz

2.Climb to the top of the Torre del Mangia,

Inside the Piazza del Campo is the Torre del Mangia, a very tall tower bearing down on the square. With 400 steps to the top, I can put my hand on my heart and tell you the climb is worthwhile as the cityscape and country side is magnificent. The 102 metre tower is the same height as the cathedral, as Siena was determined to give the church and the civic authority the same power.

The bell at the top of the Torre del Mangia.

The Torre del Mangia in the evening.

3.Take a look at the old city hall Palazzo Pubblico and Cappella di Piazza

Also inside the Piazza del Campo is the Palazzo Pubblico. This is where the entire medieval population would meet for civic and cultural affairs. Today the Palazzo Pubblico houses the Civic Museum with many famous Sienese masterpieces. Well worth a visit.

Next to it is a small marble chapel is the Cappella di Piazza. It was built by the Sienese people in 1348 to thank the Virgin Mary for the end of the ‘Black Plaque’ which hit the city hard.

Before the Palio a Mass is held in the chapel for the jockeys as it’s a brutal race with many accidents and unfortunately a few fatalities over the years.

4.Fonte Gaia inside the Piazza del Campo

On the opposite side of the piazza is the Fonte Gaia. The evocative marble carvings are copies of Tito Sarrocchi’s work with the originals at the museum of Spedale di Santa Maria dells Scala. As magnificent as the sculpture is it’s hard to see it beauty between the pigeons.

Pigeons, pigeons, pigeons… how can you not love them!

5. Get the biggest gelato you’ve ever had in your life

On every other street corner is a gelato store. Don’t resist the beautifully displayed ice-cream and sorbet and get the biggest one you can, but don’t squirm when they ask for 8 euros.

The Italian gelato is to die for!

6. Give it a go and learn Italian

Learning Italian was the reason we came to Siena. When we came up with the idea we tossed up between a school in Todi in Umbria and the Leonardo da Vinci School in Siena.

I am thrilled with our choice as not only did we pick an exceptional school, we’ve fallen in love with Siena.

The school is right in the middle of the historic centre and is well run with the staff bending over backward to help. From the moment we walked in only Italian was spoken. I was initially terrified like a possum in the headlights, but I soon got used to it. The maximum number of student per class is 10, but we only had four which was fantastic. People from all walks seem to love learning Italian, from students to immigrants and people like us. We LOVED it and would like to return to either Siena or one of their other schools in Rome or Florence.

Leaving school after another challenging day!

7. Stay Gino’s apartment overlooking the Piazza del Campo

Siena was our first Airbnb experience so I was a little dubious especially as I had a lot of resistance about the 64 steps to the fifth floor! But the view overlooking the Piazza del Campo was worth every step and we loved it. We stayed for two weeks with our school just a 10-minute walk away and many restaurants just seconds away.

The Piazza del Campo in the evening.

The experience was excellent and Gino the owner and his family looked after us extremely well. When you are in a place for a slightly extended period of time it is great to have the space especially a sitting room and a kitchen, even if it just to make your breakfast.

8. Siena’s magnificent cathedral

It’s not often I rave about churches especially in Italy where there are so many, but the Cathedral (Duomo) in Siena is a great Gothic building filled with treasures. While the church is magnificent, don’t miss the mosaic masterpieces on the floor. To read more about the Siena’s Cathedral

Siena’s cathedral – don’t forget to look at the mosaic masterpieces on the floor.

9. Sienese food

In all the time we were in Siena, we didn’t have a bad meal. In fact, I think it would be impossible.

What could be better than zucchini flowers with shaved black truffle.

The pasta dishes are great, but one of the Sienese all time favorites is Wild Boar with Pappardelle – divine. I am also a great fan of the Spaghetti Vongole. I could go on and on about the food, but I suggest you just wonder and follow your nose.

Never had a bad meal in Siena.

10. Biggest market in Tuscany.

If it’s Wednesday, it’s market day in Siena.

This is the biggest market in Tuscany and it’s for locals although obviously the tourists flock there too. I love these type of markets as they give you an insight into the daily lives of the locals. There were rows upon rows of clothes and kitchen supplies and of course, food. Since European refrigerators are small and Italians love the freshest ingredients, they shop several times a week.

The market is held at La Lizza from 8.30 am to 1.30 pm. If you are driving into the city in the morning, allow plenty of time as the traffic on market day is horrific.

Have fun and I hope you LOVE Siena as much as I did.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Siena : Feel the excitement in the lead up to Siena’s Palio

I’m in Siena and it’s literally only a couple of weeks until the most important event of the year – the PALIO on the Piazza del Campo.

What I’m witnessing now is the lead up to this historic horse race that has been an annual fixture since the 6th century. The ‘contrades’ or districts within the city boundaries of Siena compete against each other.

Back in the day there were 57 contrades, but today there are just 17. The contrades parade the streets of Siena (men only) dressed in their regalia, marching at the beat of the drum and waving their flags, with more members from the contrade following behind.The passion is deep, the pride is strong and the noise from the contrades is deafening.

The Palio is much more than a simple event for the Sienese, it’s a large part of their lives since birth. Each person belongs to a contrade, participating in the life of that contrade with great enthusiasm and also in the organization of the Palio throughout the entire year.

There are two races – one July 2 in honour of Madonna of Provenzano and one August 16 in honour of the Virgin Mary.

Although there are 17 contrades, only 10 out of the 17 take part in each race: seven that did not participate in the previous race, while the other three are drawn by lots. The Piazza del Campo is prepared for the race, with the ring in the middle providing standing room for spectators. The outer ring is covered in turf for the actual racing, making it very challenging as some parts are very narrow.

Ablaze in their contrade robes, displaying their colours and emblem the jockeys rides three laps of the Piazza del Campo bareback, often taking as little as 90 seconds to complete. The first horse across the line is the winner, even if it arrives without the jockey.

The Palio actually takes place over four days, the race taking place on the fourth day. The first day is for the “Tratta” or the drawing of the lots and assignment of a horse to each of the ‘contrade’. Then, each of contrade chooses their jockey.

I only wish I was here for the race…

SPECIAL NOTE: There is no official box office for the tickets to the Palio. Tickets are purchased directly from those who organize the stands, the private terraces or travel agencies.

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