Once upon a time and long ago I was in Siena for an afternoon. I knew then, standing in the Piazza del Campo, that brief hours were not enough. Planning this trip, I wondered if four days would be too long. There was just barely time to visit explore this wandering, wonderful, walled city so ancient in age and timeless in what it has to offer.
We stayed at the Athena Hotel (recommended), which is at one of the entrances to the city on the complete opposite side from the train station. The taxi driver will amaze you with his skill in navigating the narrow streets that jolt up and down and turn in ways that any Pittsburgh native would be comfortable with.
The hotel is within easy walking distance of the city center—the Duomo or the Piazza del Campo. Siena is not for the faint of heart when it comes to walking. Be prepared for lots of hills and multiple steps. (There are many accommodations made for wheelchair access!) The elderly residing in the city have been walking these streets their whole lives and nearly put us to shame.
The sights are many—look around, down and up.
There is the Duomo, striking with its green and white stripes versus so much of Siena that is various shades of Tuscan orange. The Duomo is almost too much with too many people not paying attention to the fact that they are in a church. One of the docents repeated, Silenceo and Silence, but he wasn’t heard.
We took a self-guided tour of the Duomo complex: the museum; up the tight circular stairs to the first level of the unfinished “new duomo;” the Baptistry of San Giovanni; the library; the Crypt, and of course the Cathedral. Buy tickets the day before and start at 10:30 when they open—spend E3 on the “Siena Cathedral” guide. It’s small but details the architecture of what you will walk through.
Of all that, the view of the city from the height of the new duomo terrace was impressive and the Crypt was fascinating. It was constructed in the 13th century, but not discovered until 1999! Isn’t it wonderful that something in the middle of an active city can be hidden for centuries?
We wound up with over fifty pictures of door knockers. I can’t help it—this is such a novel idea for an American with a boring doorbell. There were some repeats, but not many. They range from scary faces to Egyptian images. A waitress in Bologna told us that rich people had frightening knockers in order to keep the peasants from bothering them—their fierce faces were meant to keep them at bay.
Don’t miss the Basilica di San Francesco, where we accidentally took pictures when we weren’t supposed to—missing the no photo sign in my captivation with the place. It is large and empty and peaceful and overwhelming in entirely different ways. I could have lingered even longer than we did, visiting each apse, altar, and nook to examine and pray before each painting or sculpture.
I light candles in the tiny churches more than in those well visited. I make my offering, light the flame and say my prayer. I pray in order: My Mother is always first because she would have liked the idea of no-longer-Catholic-me lighting a candle for her in a Catholic church. Next is my Dad, followed by Davey, then Uncle Jim and Uncle Jim and everyone else I have lost too soon, no matter what their age was when they departed this earth. I miss them and therefore, they went too soon.
Seeing Siena properly takes preparation. Read about it ahead of time and think about the age of everything—the Piazza del Campo was completed in the 1340s. It astonishes me that the bricks are still in place, being walked upon daily and ridden upon in the Palio each summer.
Stepping into the Piazza del Campo, you have to stop, literally stop, and let the vastness of this seep into you. If you have not already been overwhelmed by the number of bricks that make up the entirety of Siena, seeing the oyster-shell-like layout of the piazza will certainly do the trick. Its nine separate sections of handmade bricks laid in herringbone pattern will amaze you if you truly see it.
With a fifth day in our itinerary, we could have seen the still-unnamed (if anyone knows, please comment) outside the city walls, beautiful one fog-encasing morning; toured the former hospital, the Santa Maria della Scala; or seen the Palazzo Chigi-Saracini with its glowing concert hall.
I’m glad that on Wednesday we meandered across the city to see the Fortress of Santa Barbara rebuilt by the de’Medici’s in 1555. There was a vast outdoor market surrounding at least half the fort walls. This is a usual shopping area for the locals, and a delightful surprise for a tourist. There is one permanent cafe casually set off to the side where we drank an espresso and a cappuccino for only E2.50. Who needs Starbucks?
Although my Footprint Guide, “Siena & the Heart of Tuscany” was helpful, I wish I’d left it at home and instead brought the Thames & Hudson World of Art book, “Sienese Painting.” There are paintings and frescos everywhere. They are tucked into cemetery alcoves and on most walls and ceilings throughout the Museo Civico. That museum visit lasted a long time and was well worth the ticket price. We didn’t bother with pre-buying, but I recommend going early before the crowds develop.
Another helpful book that I’m not sure you can get except in Siena is simply called, “Siena. New Practical Guide.” You can pick one up at almost any newsstand or little store. This is the book I used daily. It’s concise, has pictures and highlights the key things to see and do.
Walking Siena at night is relaxing. So many tour buses come during the day that the throngs of busy tourists zipping in and around you can overwhelm. At night, they’re gone and it becomes a different city—quiet, serene, open and totally welcoming to those who want to share her beauty. The Tower Mangia at night is stunning, jolting up in the dark night sky—that a canvas to show off the buildings in a whole different way.
Other things to note: this is a living, breathing city. People live behind those knocker-covered doors and conduct business in those buildings (including the one so striking we thought it was a museum, but the guard—without laughing—told us it was a bank!). The streets are off limits to tourist cars—thank goodness—but that doesn’t mean you won’t be startled by the number of them making their way through the throngs of people and negotiating the skinny alleys. The vespas and motorcycles speed by with a hurry—hurry attitude that the Italians really don’t have.
It is an approach to life I’d like to emulate, but maybe that’s impossible living in a city only a few hundred years old.
Coming over the next weeks: Siena, the Food and Siena, the People.