Advantages Historical buildings. Beautiful scenery. Great people. Colourful and vibrant
Disadvantages Can be very hot in the summer
|Value for Money|
|Ease of getting around|
My partner and I visited this picturesque town in August 2011 and immediately fell in love with its beauty and tranquility.
Siena, the medieval town known for its yellow ochre buildings, terracotta rooftops and green window shutters, lies like a fantasy story mirage in the midst of the Tuscan countryside.
In this review I would like to give a little background history on Siena and talk of the inhabitants, the buildings and its traditions.I will give a full run down of the famous Palio horse race held at the Piazza del Campo in the very centre of Siena. The reason I tell you this is because a lot of people will say that this review is supposed to be about Sienna and not some horse race. Well believe me when I say that the horse race is the very heart and soul of these people and the very essence of this great town and to write a review about Siena without explaining the race and its meanings would be sacrilegious and I would never be allowed to set foot in Siena again.
Because the town is built up onto three hills in the countryside and has a wall surrounding it, there is no traffic on the narrow streets, which is a blessing. Also, unlike most of Holland where I live, there are not many people travelling on bicycles, so you can enjoy the town and its offerings at your leisure.There are lots of little alcoves and arches to walk under and some tiny, narrow little streets. The colours of the buildings are beautiful and rustic looking. There are oranges, yellows and all manner of sunny colours with that old worn look from years of baking in the glorious sunshine. When the sun starts to break through into the little alleyways there are some lovely sights and some excellent photography opportunities.
Untouched by the war, the buildings are all in their original state. You really do get a feeling of nostalgia and history whilst walking amongst them. In 1995 Siena was given the amazing and rare honour of being named as a ‘World Heritage Site’ town. It holds this title with San Gimignano a neighbouring Tuscany village. Siena has always been linked to France and the capital of Italy, Rome. In the 5th century Siena was one of the major towns to ply trade between Italy and France and its people were renowned for their hospitality and personable attitudes when it came to dealing with all traders.The people of Siena and the Florentines from the city of Florence share a great rivalry in most things. Siena has never really forgiven Florence for defeating them in the battle of 1555. Siena was hit hard by this and took time to put itself back on the map, so to speak. Florence and Sienna are opposed in many things, including, unbelievably, their attitudes towards art and what it represents.
This bank was responsible for the growth and industry of the Sienese and it grew and prospered in other major cities, becoming the benchmark for future businesses and banks alike.
The Monte del Paschi de Siena is the world’s oldest functioning bank. It was built on February 27th 1472 and still stands there proud today and open for business. I was blown away by this building. When you first see it, it looks like three massive buildings forming an ‘n’ shape and you enter the opening and are faced with a statue of the banks founder. Each of the three large buildings is decorated about fifty feet up with the busts of famous bankers who worked there, put money into the bank or helped build it. There travel across the three buildings and are carved magnificently from the stone. It really is impressive. The General Council of the Republic are carved there for their work with the poor and needy and providing affordable loans for the less privileged.
A short walk from the bank traversing through some small and eloquent streets lined with shops and cafes, leads you onto the Piazza del Campo. What a sight to behold this is. It is like walking into a huge bowl shaped arena. It is like an open stadium, four times the size of Wembley and buzzing with activity. It takes your breath away just by its sheer size and beauty. We arrived a week before the famous Palio horse race, which I will talk about later in the review, and the whole place was alive with work and preparation. You could feel the intensity of expectation and excitement.It was not always used for the Palio. To begin with the open space was used for markets and fairs before being replaced by annual games which were spectacular in their own right. Gladiatorial fights and strange bouts of endurance were held there and many a family would go and spend the day there and look on in awe and morbid pleasure at the terrible accidents and deaths, akin to that of the French and their executions.
This really is a unique place and once you sit down to really look at it you realize just how different to anywhere you have ever been it is. As you sit on the massive square in the middle you can look right around, three hundred and sixty degrees and that’s when you notice the bowl shape. It is like a huge concave bowl travelling around the square.The Sienese were busy building chairs and seats around the bowl in preparation for the Palio.
At intervals, around the bowl, you can see gaps, which are streets leading into the main town shopping areas. It’s reminded me of a huge spider with its legs branching out. The Piazza was built or formed in the late twelve hundreds and is visited by millions from all over the world every year.The bowl surrounding the square is also home to the town hall or Palazzo Communale.
Rising up into the sky at over three hundred feet is the Torre del Mangia an impressive tower, which gives the Piazza its finishing touch. You can climb the three hundred and thirty two steps for a breathtaking view of the city but be warned it is quite a trek, especially in the baking heat. So take some water with you and take your time.
The Duomo is another amazing building. I found it hauntingly gothic and beautifully majestic in its eeriness. Inside the building the floor is made out of coloured marble and we spent at least a half hour just admiring and appreciating the work that must have gone into it. It is stunningly beautiful and contains some amazing works of art and depicts scenes from folklore and the bible.The striped black and white marble pillars and interior reek of French and Italian design. The stripes are the work of Byzantines from Eastern Rome, and has links to Greece; although black and white is also the traditional colour for Siena, again linked to the two brothers from whence the name came. The football team plays in black and white too. There are works of art and statues spread about the Duomo, including Donatello’s John the Baptist carved in bronze. It is a lovely building to visit.
Standing under the dome itself and looking up into the intricate glass windows is wondrous and takes your breath away. Again, it really does make you wonder why we don’t build anything so beautiful today.You can use your camera inside the Duomo, but no flash photography is allowed. You will also need to cover shoulders and no shorts or dresses above the knee will be allowed. This is a general rule of thumb when visiting most churches across Italy.
The church originally belonged to the Dominicans but Catherine spent so much of her life in the church and left such a stamp on it that it was later dedicated to her. It was almost demolished by an earthquake in 1798 and has been restorated many times; the latest in 1940. The work was finished in 1962. You can still see some damage to the building but it is structurally safe after being strengthened at its core.
Built between 1225 and 1265 the Basilica is another foreboding medieval type building with a gothic façade. It now stands as homage to Catherine the Great and it is the only place left to depict her legacy. Some of the paintings inside this building defy logic. As an artist I am never left in anything less than a state of awe at the work of some of these great painters from centuries past. They were limited to the materials they could use and to produce what they did with the tools and materials they had is mind blowing. I could look at them for hours.
Another building worth a visit if you appreciate architecture or just love the sense and feeling of something old.
The inside of the building is slightly curved inwards to compensate for the outwards curvature of the bowl in which it stands around the square of the Piazza.
It is an impressive building and was copied in many cities around Europe. Again, because of it being untouched during the war and because of lack of funding to modernize it, the government building retains its mix of medieval and gothic overtones and the work inside is extraordinary and gives you a different view of artists work at that time as opposed to the normal biblical paintings found in the cathedrals and churches.
His English was very good and he took great delight in describing it to us. Firstly it takes place twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th.He explained to us that the area of Siena is divided into seventeen districts, which each have their own coat of arms and ways of living. His parents would split for three weeks in July and three in August because they came from different districts and people from different districts were not allowed to mix before the races. His Father moved in with his brother. That is how serious they take this race.
All the while he was telling us about the Palio, the builders around us were erecting seats and adjusting awnings. Dirt was being prepared on the edges of the bowl. There was a real buzz about the place and you could feel the excitement building.
The dirt would be laid across the outer ring of the Piazza as a track for the horses. Foam mattresses and barriers were laid out and tied to any sharp edges were the jockeys may be at risk if they fell and the track would be checked for sharp objects.
By now our narrator, who had informed us his name was Naldo had bought us drinks and was ever happy to fill us in on the goings on around us. He was a nice guy and we didn’t feel obliged to listen but it was really interesting and he was good company.
The Contrade are represented by that districts emblem and colours, which are sewn into banners and parade by its people.The seventeen Contrade are: Eagle, Snail, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Shell, Tower, Ram, Caterpillar, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine, She-Wolf, Goose.
While we were there we could see when we were entering a different Contrade because of the change in colours of people’s clothes or flags hanging from buildings.
The bowl is filled with over thirty thousand people on race days and during ceremonies. A further thirty thousand fill the square and the lampposts, rooftops, alleyways and windows are filled to the brim with spectators.
Four days before each race a ballot is used to choose each horse and jockey for each district. This is a huge ceremony in itself and takes a whole day. If a certain district gets a good horse of the jockey they wanted then a cheer louder than any football stadium can be heard across the whole of Siena. The jockeys are usually Sicilian as they are small in stature. The horses are ridden bareback and it is very dangerous. The races are so dangerous that on the day of each race six trial runs are negotiated through in order to get the jockeys prepared for the big one.
Naldo says that everyone in the world should see the Palio at least once in their lives.
Let’s not forget that this whole race takes a year to prepare and once it is over the preparations for next year begin immediately.
Each race consists of preparation and ceremony that lasts four days. The winning Contrada celebrate the victory on their streets for days on end, showing off the pallium.The jockey goes into folklore and is set for life. The winner of the august 2010 race last year got five hundred thousand Euros. Not bad for a minutes work!
One thing is for sure at some stage in the future we will go and witness the race. If the preparations while we were there were anything to go by it must be as monumental and as unforgettable as the Sienese claim.
The places to eat in Siena, as all over Italy, are mostly cheap and good quality. We did not have one bad meal or snack in Siena. Even the small local pizza place sold pizzas of amazing quality. For seven Euros you got a massive piece of pizza with a lovely rustic crust and an abundance of tasty toppings.Don’t even get me started on the ice cream. Wow is all I can say. Some of the flavours are so diverse that you wouldn’t have thought of them, but they are simply quite delicious. The Italians are renowned for their pasta, pizzas and ice cream and in Siena, at least, you can definitely see why.
If you want a more substantial meal there are plenty of nice inexpensive restaurants to choose from.
Water is an essential while walking around Siena in the summer and it is really cheap. Most ice cold bottles are between fifty cents and one Euro.
A big thumbs up from me for Siena. Please see the photographs included.©Lee Billingham
Attention, this is the first review from this author
Instead of giving a negative rating, consider:
Help this member by giving your advice
Report fraud (for example plagiarism) or other issue with the review to the Ciao support team
Add your comment
Release Date: 2013-04-12, Rating: Exempt
Availability: Usually dispatched within 24 hours
Release Date: 2009-07-28, Rating: Exempt
Availability: Usually dispatched within 24 hours
Release Date: 2012-10-11, Rating: Exempt
Availability: Usually dispatched within 24 hours