The Sights of Siena

IMG_5273After hiking nearly 100 KM on the Via Francigena, and when my toes turned to fall colours, I stayed in Siena while Kees continued hiking.

The historic center of Siena, or centro storico as it is called in Italian, is very walkable. I love roaming the narrow streets with its thick stone walls of houses that are hundreds of years old. Much of the ancient city wall remains in tact, with gateways into the city, like the glorious Porto Romano. Although in a few places the city fathers have, in their wisdom, decided to destroy the wall to make room for modern day traffic.

Busses run frequently and pretty much on schedule to and from the old center. For 1.50 you can travel quite far. At the Piazza Indipendenza you can simply phone a taxi and it shows up in minutes to take you to your destination. We bought sim cards from a company called Wind, to use our phones in Italy. Reasonable rates, unlimited texting and we can  even use it throughout Europe. It’s been a lifesaver to use the data with maps as we roam the city or countryside without wifi access. What did we do before cell phones and Ipads? Get lost, I guess…

IMG_5193Of course, Siena is famous for its Il Campo piazza. Its unique oval shape slopes down to the Palazza Pubblico. Its Torre del Mangia can be seen from across the countryside. I enjoyed walking around and across Il Campo, despite the many tourist contortionists trying to take selfies. Why would you want yourself obstructing the glorious medieval buildings in your photos? 

IMG_5192The most fascinating story about Il Campo is that this is the site of a bizarre, annual horse race. It’s a historic event (of course) in which all neighborhoods of the city wholeheartedly participate. All year, events lead up to this 90 second race. Watch the Rick Steeves’ video below for a good synopsis. When you walk around the empty square, it’s hard to imagine 50,000 people cramped into the center while horses race around the outside.

When I got hungry, I simply picked one of the many wrought iron tables and chairs outside shops. I had pasta quattro formaggi, 4 cheese pasta, for 4.50 euros.

My favourite discovery in Siena was the Fortezza Medicea, an ancient fortress now a jazz school and event center. Perched on top of the ancient wall was an entire elementary school. No road, just a school with a fenced play yard. The walls of the fortress were a great (free) place to stroll and offered a tremendous view of the old city, the towers and, of course, Il Duomo. IMG_5189

The Piazza Duomo is perhaps the most recognized landmark of the city. Every bit as glorious as the cathedral in Florence, this one is perhaps even more decorative. In fact, when I went inside I thought “this is not a church, it’s a piece of jewelry.” Seldom have I seen such an ornate building. Every wall, every corner, every pillar, every piece inside it, is a work of art. Donatell, Leonardo, Bernini – they all worked here and their masterpieces still show off their talents.

Sculptures, wood carvings, marble statues, paintings, wall hangings…. It is overwhelming. For a mere 8 euros you can wander on your own and gaze at all the medieval fanciness around you, as long as you like. IMG_5231

When you are outside, you notice a gigantic rough brick wall. Just a wall by itself. It impressive to know that the cathedral was supposed to be that much bigger. But then the plague hit the city and the expansion never happened. 

Inside the cathedral, the floors are perhaps the most mind blowing feature. I took photos but the best ones are on the Opera Duomo website where you have a view from the top. The floors should really be hanging on the walls – they are intricate, inlaid marble mosaics depicting biblical scenes. IMG_5238

Suddenly, to the left, is a small room. It is the Piccolomini Library (I love that name because ‘picollo’ means ‘little’ in Italian so ‘piccolomini’ must be really small! It was a family name). Its walls intricately painted, this has been called the world’s most beautiful library. It was built, some 500 years ago, for a pope and to house his collection of manuscripts. Most of the works on display are music scores, painted in gild and curls.IMG_5255

Outside, blinking in the bright sunlight, you can have an espresso and wander down to the Piazza Mercado, once a lovely, covered market place but now simply a parking lot. But one wall has a brilliant cascade of purple bougainvillea, worth the walk there.

Before I sauntered back down the 2 KM to my AirBnB cottage, I bought furlined socks. It’s nippy in Siena in October!


Wind SIM card:

Horse Race:

Il Duomo:

Il Duomo:

Amazing Race Italy

IMG_5127“I-ah waz-ah born in Pisa,” she says with a conspiratorial wink, as if that explains it all. “These Sienese live-ah in-ah de Middle Ages!” I hope no one else at the bus stop understands English as she continues loudly, in her wonderful Italian-English, to explain the bus system, its numbering, which bus goes to the train station, the history of the train system, the economy of Italy. “Thees boos it-ah was not for city use but it-ah was born for students,” she explains the use of school buses being used for city transport while students are in school. “Bastards!” she calls the politicians who cause job uncertainty and who don’t build enough railway tracks. I am glad I asked this lady if this was the right bus and that she broke forth with a waterfall of English words. I learn more in half an hour on the bus together than I have all week. IMG_1316

The way Italians talk keeps throwing me for a loop. It can be in a restaurant or in a shop or just on a street corner. Suddenly we’ll hear this heated debate that gets louder and more violent by the second. The voices are angry, loud, everyone shouting at the same time. If this was the USA, I’d expect someone to start shooting. Or at the very least I think they’re going to draw knives soon. I want to get out of there, fast, before real trouble starts. But then I – or they – turn around or come around the corner and I realize they’re all smiling, clapping each other on the shoulder, even kissing each other on the cheeks. It was only a simple, friendly chat! I’d hate to hear a real argument in Italian…  I’m not sure if there is a law against talking on your cell phone in Italy. If there is, no one adheres to it. The biggest problem is that they all talk like Italians, with both hands. Even while driving….

IMG_5159I’m grateful to have gone through school in The Netherlands. We had no option but to learn languages. Even in elementary school we had French. In High School they added English and German. Now, when we hike or roam around Italian towns, we can have a conversation with a German family, answer a lost Frenchman and secretly listen in to a Dutch group’s comments on an Italian statue…

When we started hiking, I had to find a way to leave my luggage behind. We’re traveling for two months: one month exploring Italy and one month of working in international schools. I needed dressier clothes and shoes for schools, but hiking clothes for the rest of the time. As always, I take cabin luggage only but I still can’t lug it all with me. The lovely At Home hotel in Lucca (still my favourite) agreed to store it for me. I checked the Trenitalia website and, at a glance, it’s easy to go back from Siena to Lucca to retrieve my luggage after the week’s hiking. treno

In reality however, it turns into an amazing race Italy. I have to leave our AirBnB cottage outside Siena at 7 AM to catch a bus – the one this wonderful woman is helping me to locate – into the city to reach the train station. There I verify the train times, buy a return ticket – all in Italian – and embark on my train adventure. From Siena to Empoli I whizz by many of the towns where we just walked and see them in a whole new perspective. From the train I notice that the ancient city center on top of a hill has spilled over, like a bubble bath, into the valley below. So that’s where they keep the industrial areas, the train stations, the apartment buildings. We did not see any of that while walking the Via Francigena. Hiking here is like being in a green cocoon. IMG_5186

In Empoli I change trains to Pisa, with 30 seconds to spare. When the train pulls out, I recognize several passengers from the previous train on the platform. They’ve all missed this connection, probably adding hours to their journey. From Pisa to Lucca is not far, then I walk across the city walls into the center, retrieve my luggage and retrace my steps. This time trains take me from Lucca to Florence. From Florence to Siena and back on the bus. What was only a half inch on the map, took about 10 hours!

In a few days I have to meet Kees in Viterbi. The train schedule for that little jaunt looks as follows: Siena, Chiusi – Chianciano Terme, transfer to train to Attigliano – Bomarzo, then to Viterbi Porta Florentina and then a bus to Porta Romano. There is a bus all the way but it doesn’t go on Wednesdays. But if I leave shortly after 7 AM, I’ll get there late afternoon. If all goes well…

46d64970-7745-4218-b585-acd5c040bc2fBut now I am settled for the next week into a lovely little cottage. I found it on AirBnB: attached to an old, yellow Tuscan country home on the outskirts of Siena, it has a bedroom, a kitchen corner, a modern bathroom and wifi. “Did you build this addition?” I ask the owner. He laughs, “No, it is 300 years old…” It’s perfect for a week long writer’s retreat as I have to finish several manuscripts. I stock up on wine, cheese and coffee and am all set to work while Kees continues another 200 or 300 KM towards Rome.