If You're Going To Siena, Italy

Friday, April 21, 2017

I have mixed feelings about Siena. It’s a city in Tuscany, Italy, and the whole Tuscany is beautiful, therefore the conclusion would be Siena is, too. While we’re at it, Italy is beautiful. A fellow blogger from Serbia commented on my Instagram back then that it was her favorite town it Italy, but I just didn't feel it. Would I recommend it? Definitely—but bear in mind that this has more to do with the fact that I advocate going wherever one hasn’t been yet (and that’s what I do, anyway). So, here's what you should know if considering visiting Siena.

Siena is a medieval city that used to be a wealthy city-state during the Middle Ages, and its historic centre has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site. It’s famous for its arts, medieval cityscape and the Palio, a horse race held twice a year around the central piazza, Il Campo. Have you ever been to Siena? I'd love to hear, especially if you loved it! What did I do wrong? 😉

What to see in Siena

Il Campo! Don’t worry about finding it: all the roads in Siena lead to its central piazza and just lead everyone else, eventually you’ll end up there. You’ll see tourists and students just picnic and relax on the pavement on the square shaped like a seashell, and the cafes around the perimeter of Il Campo are said to be the most popular aperitivo places in town.

Il Campo is dominated by the red Palazzo Publico and its tower, Torre del Mangio. Palazzo Publico, the civic palace, was built between 1297 and 1310 (!!!) and houses the city’s municipal offices. Its internal courtyard leads to the Torre and the Civic Museum, which holds some of the greatest Sienese paintings from the Middle Ages. Opening times: every day from 10 to 6 with ticket office closing at 5.15 in the winter (November 1st–March 15th), or from 10 to 7 in the summer (March 16st–October 31st).

Torre del Mangia is said to be offering a great view of Siena and its surroundings, but I haven’t checked it firsthand because I didn’t know of the closing time. Don’t repeat my mistake: Torre del Mangia is opened every day from 10 to 4 with ticket office closing at 3.15 in the winter (October 16th–February 28th), or from 10 to 7 in the summer (March 1st–October 15th). It’s closed on Christmas, but if you happen to visit Siena on New Year’s, it will be working from 12 to 4.  Also, be prepared for some cardio, because reaching to the top takes exactly 400 stairs. A quick reminder, I nearly died climbing up the Palazzo Vecchio Tower in Florence, but it was so worth it. ;)

Il Duomo is a masterpiece of Romanesque-Gothic architecture, and if you learned about it at history of arts lectures in high school, here’s your chance to see an example in person! It was begun in the 12th century and the main façade was completed in 1380. Back then it was supposed to be the largest basilica in the world with an east-west nave (as usual). However, due to war and plague, the scarcity of funds cut the project so the Sienese made a smaller version from the original plan’s north-south transept. This place too offers an opportunity to climb the internal staircase for a view of the town and the surrounding area.

What to eat in Siena

Panforte! (And lots of pasta, of course.) Panforte is a local specialty and I found online that it is a “precursor to modern fruitcake”, but I’d say it’s much more. It’s one of the most delicious deserts you’ll have in Italy, and during my three weeks there, I had a ton, so… Panforte is thick, sweet, strong (the name means “strong bread” and it’s referring to the spices) and just divine. How happy was I to find one in my suitcase when I came back home!
Also see: Ricciarelli buscuits made out of almond paste, gingerbread and Noto—sweet made of honey, almonds and pepper. If you have a sweet tooth, Siena is likely to satisfy it!

When to come to Siena

In the summer, because of Palio! Palio is a traditional medieval horse run around the Piazza del Campo held twice each year: July 2nd and August 16th. It lasts for about a minute and a half, but it’s still the most important event of the year. Ten horses and riders, dressed in the appropriate colors, represent ten of the seventeen contrades or city wards. The race circles Il Campo that looks unrecognizable to those that had seen it prior, because a thick layer of dirt is laid on it.

The Palio stems from the Middle Ages, when Il Campo was the place of public games, most of which were combative. Public races organized by the contrade became popular in the 14th century and they were run around the city; and when bullfighting was prohibited in 1590, the contrade took to organizing races in Il Campo. The first modern Palio took place in 1633, with its precedents in Il Campo being races on buffalo-back and donkey-back.

How to come to Siena

The nearest international airports to Siena are Peretola Airport in Florence and Galileo Galilei International Airport in Pisa. There are two to three buses daily (Siena line) between Siena and Bologna Airport as well. But since you probably won’t be flying to Siena directly, it’s good to know that it can be reached by train from both Pisa and Florence, changing at Empoli. Siena railway station is located at the bottom of a long hill outside the city walls. You can check timetables and buy tickets online at trenitalia.com (you can also buy them at the railway station, of course; btw, if you’re planning to travel throughout Italy, this website is super useful, and if you’re buying tickets in advance, you can score amazing deals.)

If you opt for bus, know they’re available directly to and from Florence, a one-hour trip, as well as from Rome (three hours), Milan (four and a half hours), and from various other towns in Tuscany and beyond. Buses leave from Piazza Gramsci, that is located within the city walls.

By road, Siena is linked to Florence by a "superstrada" (the Raccordo Autostradale RA03 – Siena-Firenze), a toll free autostrada. The superstrada to Florence is indicated on some road signs with the letters SI-FI, referring to province abbreviations.

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