There has been a town on the site of Siena since 900BC although the height of Siena’s power was in the 1400s. Traditionally Siena and Florence have been competing city states with the balance of power fluctuating between the two until this rivalry culminated in a final battle in 1555 which Florence won. Since then Siena has always been the second city in Tuscany.
Having said that, it’s our local town and our first city of Tuscany. We love it.
Our love affair began 10 years ago when we first visited. We had a rental car and very little understanding of Italian and we were determined to see this town. As we drove in we noticed that the wide modern roads were turning to narrow cobbled roads flanked by two and three story buildings and that the volume of traffic was dropping. The streets got narrower with more pedestrians, all of whom seemed surprised to see us. Sadly our Italian wasn’t good enough to translate the “residents only – no entry” signs that dotted the walls. Eventually we realised that where we had our car was a place where cars simply shouldn’t be – imagine driving through the middle of Queensgate Mall in Lower Hutt on a Wednesday afternoon and you’ll understand.
Our only problem was we didn’t know how to get out again. Siena is a maze, we had no idea where we were and at that time GPS was still a classified military secret. My suggestion was we park the car, get out and advise Hertz to come and get it. Jean was slightly more practical. She spotted a local taxi and figured that following that would firstly keep us out of trouble and secondly, eventually lead us out.
To this day I’m sure there is a bemused Sienese taxi driver who wonders why two crazy tourists in a dirty Punto rental car followed him around Siena for an afternoon. Whenever he stopped to pick up or drop off a passenger, we stopped and dutifully waited. But eventually the twists and turns became less and the roads became wider and we exited the old city through one of the many gates – still following the cab.
We now know the way to see the old part of Siena is on foot and to make use of one of the many parking areas and buildings that are positioned around the outside of the old city. The one we use most is in the University and the walk into the city is an experience in itself.
The heart of Siena is the Campo, the large semi circular piazza in front of the Palazzo Pubblico or town hall which has it’s own impressive clock tower. The tower dominates the city skyline and is an ideal vantage point to view the city. It’s 400 steps to the top and the climb is not recommended for those scared of enclosed spaces (the walk up has virtually no windows and is a narrow spiral staircase) or heights (the view from the top covers a fair chunk or the Tuscan countryside).
The campo is also the location for the twice yearly Palio when the various contrada or neighborhoods of Siena compete in a horse race around the Campo. If you are visiting Siena on July 2 or August 15 it’s a “must see” event.
This trip we couldn’t wait to visit Siena and specifically to spend an afternoon sitting in the Campo having a drink with the girls and simply take in the sights and sounds around us. And that’s the thing. While the Campo is a major tourist attraction with tour groups and tourists always enjoying the sights, it is still a place to find the locals doing what Sienese locals do best. Just getting on with life.