A Weekend in the Medieval City of Siena, TuscanyThursday, October 06, 2016
Sometimes life hurls unexpected obstacles at you and you have to learn how to overcome them. One of the best ways, I think, is to clear your mind and explore a new place. Luckily for me, one of my friends is also on her year abroad here in Tuscany, in the medieval city of Siena.
Only a short train ride away (note: it should normally be around an hour and a half, but I had the unlucky experience of being an hour delayed in the middle of nowhere, luckily I had a book with me!) Siena is one of the most visited and interesting places in Tuscany.
When I finally arrived in Siena we were planning on going out for a nice dinner and then perhaps seeing what nightlife there was on offer, however when we looked out of the window just before leaving it was pioveva a catinelle (raining cats and dogs, literally: raining from the basin, ha). And for some reason the prospect of getting into fluffy, cosy pyjamas and watching a movie whilst eating nutella out of the jar with spoons seemed much more appealing. And that is exactly what we did, leaving the exploration of the city until the next day.
The next morning we got up, bright eyed and bushy tailed and headed towards the historic centre. For October it was actually a glorious day (yay Italy) and after walking around for a while we spent some time in the Piazza del Campo, the main square. This is probably the most famous view of Siena and one of the most famous Italian events happens here: the Palio.
The Palio is a horse race which happens twice a year in the summer. Ten horse riders and horses represent ten of the seventeen contrade (city wards). Each of the contrade have their own colours and their own animal or symbol, which you will see later on in some pictures. The race is around the Piazza three times, bareback and it never lasts more than 90 seconds. Apparently it is an amazing experience, although the race is very dangerous - jockeys often get thrown off of their horses and sometimes the horses crash into the walls of the city... in 2004 a horse even died because it had been trampled on which has recently raised questions about animal rights and whether this historic event should be continued.
After bullfighting was criminalised, the contrade organised races first riding buffaloes, then donkeys and finally horses in 1633. It's actually really interesting because it's not the jockey who wins the race, it's the horse. Which means that horses can win by themselves if their rider was lost somewhere along the track and the horse which comes last isn't the loser - it's whoever comes second!
Here are a couple of videos so that you can have an idea of what it's like:
The most recent Palio & One of the bad crashes
Here you can see what I mean about the animals for each contrada - this is the Leocorno (Unicorn). The Sienese people are very proud of where they are from and according to some they feel more proud of their contrada than of the city that they come from which is what makes the Palio such a competitive and often violent event.
We also had a look at the Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta, Siena's cathedral. The façade was finished in the 14th Century and it always fascinates me how skilled people were at this time. Look at the detail! It's much smaller than the cathedral in Florence but that is just something else.
After some more exploring we ended up back in the Piazza and soaked up the sun whilst enjoying some pizza (obviously). Pizza a taglio is really popular in Italy. It's basically takeaway pizza that you can get by the slice, but these are massive. My friend was telling me how this pizza place is open into the early hours of the morning so they often get a slice on their way home from a night out. And it's proper pizza! Not the greasy things you can get in the places that are open that late in the UK.
When walking around Siena we also noticed that there were loads of mini statues of what appeared to be Romulus and Remus with their wolf mother (you're probably familiar with the story but if not, put very very simply: the god Mars' twin sons were abandoned and a wolf found them who raised them. When the boys grew up they founded Rome but had an argument with each other and Romulus killed Remus). At first we didn't know why they were all over Siena because it's a legend which is related to Rome, but after a little bit of research I discovered that according to local legend, Siena was founded by Remus' sons Senius and Aschius. After their fathers death they brought the statue of the wolf with them to Siena and it became the symbol of the city.
Siena is definitely one of the beautiful Tuscan cities that you can easily visit for the day when you're staying in Florence or another nearby city. Head up to the Fortezza Medicea if you want some pretty views onto the historic centre, you can spot the cathedral from here! And if you fancy something a little bit different you can also find the most beautiful views of the Tuscan hills. But please remember that if you're still at university you shouldn't walk up the bell tower in the main piazza (the Torre del Mangia) because it brings bad luck for your exams!! I didn't want to risk it hahah.
Getting here is quite easy as there are regular trains from Firenze Santa Maria Novella and at around 18 euros return it's not too bad, I just hope for you that you don't get delayed in the middle of nowhere like I did. Enjoy!