Monday, November 9, 2015

Siena - Italy. Beautiful

Siena was our choice for a short 3 night stay. This would be followed by a 4 night stay in Rome. More of Rome later.

Obvious question, why Siena? The answers – we like Italy. Probably our favourite European country. We absolutely love medieval towns and Siena is a wonderful example of one. You will recall our visits to Aachen, Bruges, Ghent, Bergamo, Verona, Salzburg, Strasbourg and Cologne to name a few. All medieval.

Siena is in Tuscany. It is situated over 3 hills and is a major tourist attraction. Of course not as big as Rome, Venice and Florence but, right up there in the big league. Siena is surrounded by fine produce and the area is a major wine producing region. The famous Chianti wine as well as the Brunello, the wines from Montepulciano are just a few wines from the area.

Getting to Siena is a bit of a challenge. Siena has no airport, so you have to fly to either Rome, Bologna, Pisa or Florence and then make your way to Siena by train or bus. However you look at it, after you land you have anywhere from 2 to 3 hours to get to Siena. We flew in to Rome, caught a taxi to the Tiburtina bus station and got a very comfortable non-stop bus. The tickets were booked online from Mumbai. No stress no `jhanjhat’. We were in Siena by late afternoon from London.

Walking into Siena was like entering a perfect medieval time capsule, where (thanks to enlightened zoning restrictions dating all the way back to 1307) the squares, castles and churches have been preserved like nowhere else in Italy. The municipality takes great care to ensure that there is no modern architecture visible, however, from the inside, the homes and offices can be very modern. While the resulting wealth of art and architecture helps maintain a sense of tradition, the city lives and breathes in the fiercely proud Sienese people.

Like many European cities Siena has a very beautiful Cathedral. The construction begun in the 12th century and the Cathedral is really a masterpiece. Its main façade was completed in 1380. The original plan called for an ambitiously massive basilica, the largest then in the world. However, the scarcity of funds truncated the project. The east wall of the abandoned original construction still stands and through an internal staircase you can climb for a grand view of the city.  

The beautiful Cathedral. Please note the round window.

The window from the outside

The window from the inside.

The window on the opposite side

Inside the Cathedral 
The abandoned extention to the Cathedral. You can climb up to the top - which we did.

The intricate carving on the top

Siena is also famous for its horse race - run twice a year - called the Palio. The Palio is run in the main town square called the Piazzo del Campo. This is now a UNESCO protected site. The horses run on the outside of the `square’ - it is really an oval – and the spectators cram the inside. Some 40,000 people watch the race and it is televised to a huge audience. The race is 3 rounds of the square. The riders race bareback and what is unusual is that the race is all about the horses, not the riders. Thus if a rider falls off the horse can still complete the race and, who knows, possibly win.

Siena has 17 neighbourhoods (contrade in Italian), but only ten of them can participate in each race. A contrada is a neighbourhood or tiny city district in Siena's historic town center. Each of the city's 17 contrade is made up of just a few roads, but has its own HQ with Palio museum, a stable for the horse and a church where mass and horse blessing take place on the day of the race. During the rest of the year the HQ is in constant use for meetings and neighbourhood dinners. Most contrade also have a fountain where every new contrada member is 'baptized' and welcomed as a member of the neighbourhood. We walked around the streets and looked for the contrada areas. Some are marked while others are not. Almost all the buildings have hooks – for lack of a better word – to tether horses as well as flag holders. I am sure that during the days the Palio is run Siena must be really decked up.

The buildings in Siena are old and extremely pretty. With the 3 hills you often get to see some really beautiful sights of buildings framed by greenery. Siena is almost totally pedestrianized. This was one of the first cities way back in 1966 to have regulated the use of cars in the city centre. It is really lovely walking up and down the streets.

We were staying in a new B&B in Siena. There is only one really top class hotel in Siena the Grand. However that was fully booked. The municipal corporation has permitted and been encouraging homeowners to establish B&B’s. We, by sheer co-incidence booked one with an enviable history. The B&B – Il Battisterio – is located literally 15 meters away from the main Cathedral. The owners have owned the property for several generations and the oldest male child in always named Giovanni. The square where the B&B is located is also called Piazza Giovanni. The family is obviously extremely moneyed and they own apartments overlooking the Campo, some hotels by the lakes, an agritourismo place in the countryside. Pope Alexander III (circa 1100/1105 – 30 August 1181), born Roland of Siena, was the Pope from 7 September 1159 to his death in 1181 lived in this very building before he moved to Rome. The 3 room suite of rooms he lived in is obviously of huge significance and its renovation is highly regulated. Our room adjoined this and the municipality did not permit the owners to change the tiles in our bathroom. So the tiles were removed. The bathroom built and retiled with the same tiles.

The room with the coat of arms

The bathroom tiles

Not only that, there is an underground passage that runs 7 kilometres from the B&B out into the countryside. The passageway also leads directly into the Cathedral. So when the Pope was in residence he used that passage to enter the Cathedral. The owner told us that for security they have shut the passageway. The James Bond movie Quantum of Solace has several scenes in Siena. In one of them, I understand, Bond emerges from a tunnel in a car. That was this tunnel. The enterprising owner is in the process of converting a part of this passage into a wine museum – wine cellars underground – and a wine bar. How utterly cool.

Siena was extremely pretty as you will have seen from the photographs. I suggest that if you are in Italy you should visit one or two of the big cities - Rome, Venice and Florence – and combine that with either Bergamo or Siena. This will give you a real taste of big and small.

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