Many people know Sienna because of the opening scenes of the rebooted Bond series, A Quantum of Solace, or maybe just for the bi-annual horse race, the Palio. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, Rick Steves does a great job of capturing the magic of Siena (here).
We weren’t going to go at all. “Everyone” talks about how it’s a perfect example of a medieval city, and that’s a period of history we just aren’t all that interested in. Two people talked me into it (I blame C. and E. — you know who you are).
We would have been wrong to miss it. If only because it gave us one of our best stories of the trip. We were using Google to get us to a parking lot on the outskirts of town (many walled cities don’t allow cars inside, or not during the day, or only for deliveries, or . . . it’s best to plan to park and walk). Fro most of it we were following other vehicles, until we made a left and found ourselves on a narrow street that opened . . . onto the Campo itself.
So we took a quick left and turned down another street, this one lined with cafes. Our being lost must be regular events for the locals, the waiters just moved the chairs a bit out of our way. A local asked J. how the handling was on our car (a hybrid). And we slowly made our way back to safe roads.
Once we parked (legally) we were free to wander, and we had a great time. Each of the seventeen “contrade,” or areas in which the city is divided, challenge each other in a passionate horse race, the Palio. The contrade are: the Eagle, Snail, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Shell, Tower, Ram, Caterpillar, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine, She-Wolf and the Goose. As one walks through the streets of Siena it is easy to know in which Contrada you currently are in by observing the flags and emblems displayed along the street.
The Duomo is incredible. It’s a huge Gothic building filled with treasures by Pisano, Donatello and Michelangelo as well as frescoes by Pinturicchio. The exterior of the cathedral is pretty impressive, and if you don’t have a lot of time in Siena, you might not even go inside and just enjoy the outside. The exterior and interiors are decorated in white and greenish-black marble in alternating stripes, black and white being the symbolic colors of Siena. I’m told the interior of this Duomo puts the (more famous) one in Florence to shame.
I do know that the pavement is decorated with the art of mosaics (using various techniques) to create storytelling masterpieces. They are superb. My camera did not capture all that I would have liked (it was a bit too dim, and I avoid flash to preserve the works). Furthermore, the Piccolomini Library is a gaudy collection of manuscripts and frescoes by Pinturicchio. In the middle of the room, take a few moments to admire the beautiful copy of The Three Graces from Roman times, based on the more ancient original that dates back to the Hellenistic period.
It was time for an aperitif by then, so we found a table facing the Torre del Mangia — town hall. The red brick subtly changed color over the hours we sat watching the people and telling stories to one another (and shamelessly listening in on other’s conversation!).