SIENA is the perfect antidote to Florence, a unified, modern city at ease with its medieval aspect, ambience and traditions – indeed, exultant about them. It's a place not easily read by outsiders, and to get anything meaningful from a visit you'll need to stay at least one night; too many visitors breeze through on a day-trip.
Self-contained behind its medieval walls, Siena's great attraction is its cityscape, a majestic Gothic ensemble that could be enjoyed without venturing into a single museum. The physical and spiritual heart of the city is the great scallop-shaped piazza Il Campo, loveliest of all Italian squares and scene of the thrilling Palio bareback horserace. Siena's Duomo and Palazzo Pubblico are two of the purest examples of Italian Gothic architecture, and the best of the city's paintings – collected in the Museo Civico and Pinacoteca Nazionale – are in the same tradition; the finest example of Sienese Gothic is Duccio's Maestà, on show in the outstanding Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana. More frescoes fill the halls of Santa Maria della Scala, the city's hospital for over 900 years and now its premier exhibition space.
Siena, like many ancient Italian cities, lives up to the title luogo a misura d'uomo or "a place made for people". This is partly due to its compact size, which allows visitors to stroll leisurely about the city, and also due to the quantity and quality of the services that the town offers. There are good urban transport facilities here, as well as a large number of garages. Private cars have limited access inside the city walls, both because of the restricted amount of space and the complex street layout, and this allows drivers to leave their cars at the gates of the city while they enjoy themselves in the center. Even the banking services, such as the currency conversion services and general tourist assistance are top quality. It would be difficult to get away with anything less than great service here, as after all, this is the home of Monte dei Paschi di Siena , the world's oldest banking establishment, founded in 1472.
The hotels and the restaurants here are extremely welcoming and still maintain the original spirit of the city. This helps to promote a wonderful sense of camaraderie between guests and locals, and visitors who are made to feel welcome leave with an increased respect for this friendly city. People generally flock to Siena for three reasons: art, architecture, and the Palio , the annual horse race in which the different districts of Siena compete. There is enough art here to keep even the most seasoned critic occupied, with sites like the Duomo , and the Pinacoteca Nazionale (National Art Gallery)-- but be warned: a day is really not enough time to unearth all the treasures that lie within these walls, as there is also a great deal of artwork spread around the city. Siena offers an opportunity to see how and where great works were conceived, just by looking around the city and visiting its churches. The experience of visiting the birthplace of major works of art offers a continuous feast for the eyes and brings joy to the soul.
One cannot forget about the Palio, which takes place at the large central square, the Piazza del Campo . On July 2 and August 16 (the more exciting date), the city goes back in time to revisit the old alliances and feuds between the districts of Siena. There are 17 contrade, (districts) in Siena, all of which have their own underground tricks or games which they harbor secretly for a year (and sometimes more). Since only ten districts can compete each year, the competition to be a part of the race is almost as important as the actual event! The Palio is more than just a race for the horses and their riders; it is also a matter of pride and ego for thousands of Senesi. The competition is fierce, with each neighborhood decked out in its colors (woe be to the unsuspecting tourist who proclaims his alliance in the wrong district of town), and if a jockey sells out to a rival team, he had better flee before his old supporters fully catch on. In the end, it comes down to traditional athletic competition, only one that started at the beginning of the last millennium, in 1147. Around this time, similar plots and schemes were being hatched in other cities, but none have maintained the popular appeal of Palio. One thing is certain - no one can claim to have properly experienced Siena without having seen it for themselves.
The food in this area is more or less typical of the whole of Tuscany, which specializes in the great marriage of flavors and aromas. However, let's start with the distinguishing factors that set Siena apart. If you are looking for something slightly different, this is the place to be, as the high standard of food in Siena makes difficult to find fault in anything new you may try. A great example is the ribollita, a vegetable soup eaten with bread croûtons, a favorite dish that can spark a number of heated discussions in its nuances. Every table has its own variations and secrets that aren't mentioned in the recipe books, but rather are only discovered by tasting.
There is a diverse range of restaurants in the city, from five star restaurants to farms that offer homemade food. One thing they all have in common though, is high quality. Osteria le Logge is a friendly and lively establishment that is a local favorite, and a busy one at that. Be sure to head there early to get a good seat. If you are looking for a light snack during the heat of the day, Taverna del Capitano offers some great light dishes and wine options. With a menu that changes on a daily basis to highlight the best produce available, you are ensured a fresh meal on your table. For a dining experience with a view of the Tuscan countryside, check out Bel Soggiorno and delight in the carefully crafted delicacies as you gaze out at the rolling hills that surround the city.
Even a simple trip to the market can be enlivened by the diversity of food surrounding you, and it is not uncommon to face such dilemmas as which type of olive oil to purchase. It is common knowledge here that there are many different types of olive oil, each with a specific purpose-- some should be used solely for cooking and others for seasoning. Once you have climbed that hurdle, you may face the debate of which oil to use for different types of cooking projects—if you are cooking quickly, then you should use oil made from mature olives, which is full of flavor and lively; but if, on the other hand, there is a slow cooking time, the oil should have a very delicate flavor and be odorless. And the seasoning oils? There is a sweet kind of olive oil, made from mature olives, with a light odor and flavor of almonds and walnuts. There is also fruity oil that smells of fresh fruit with a bitter, spicy aftertaste. And finally, don't forget the character oil, made from unripe olives with an aggressive, spicy flavor. The choice is yours - well actually, the choice is up to your host, which is just as well, as they will know what to choose from experience. If you are very brave, try to spark a debate with the cook to persuade them to use one kind of oil instead of another. It is rare that anyone ever wins in this kind of discussion. To pick up some high-quality wine of your own, Ristorante Enzo is a combination restaurant and shop that serves customers a wide variety of products that can then be purchased and shipped worldwide.
The local dishes are fast becoming international successes, with such favorites including pappardelle (wide strips of pasta) with a hare sauce, wild boar stew, black and white cabbage soup, fagioli all'uccelletto, and panzanella, a summer salad of soaked bread, basil, onions and tomatoes. You can sink your teeth into various kinds of sheep's cheese and homemade sausages, which are particularly tasty. As for desserts, the panforte is the most famous, a nougat-type delicacy that is also a kind of calorific bomb with several variations. If this isn't enough to satisfy, there is also cantucci, biscuits served with the sweet dessert wine known as vin santo. This wine was originally made from grapes that were left to wither in large kitchens amongst the fumes and odors of the food, and some connoisseurs took pride in being able to recognize the different wine of every family in the area. In Siena, the Settimana dei Vini or Wine Week is one of the cornerstones of Italian wine culture. Wines such as the Chianti originate in this area, while do Rosso, Brunello and Montalcino come from an area closer to Florence. It would be difficult to find a better region for red wine, and outside competitors have a hard time living up to their rivals. If you are a fan of Brunello wine, Poggio Antico will surely leave you satisfied, as the knowledgeable staff will lead you on a wine tasting adventure guaranteed to please the palate.
Visiting Siena is like learning to play the guitar. For the basics, all you need is one afternoon. To become an expert, or at least a good player, a lifetime might just be long enough. Siena is small and intimate (it doesn't take long to cross) and is built almost in a circle around the main square of the Campo. To really get to know it, study its history and appreciate the city as it deserves, could take years. Of course, the modern traveler doesn't have much time. Therefore, visitors need to make a series of choices, and also take into consideration that the outskirts of the city should also be visited and appreciated.
Il Campo is the reverse of Venice, where there is only one piazza and the other squares are referred to as campi. Here, there is one campo, or field and the others are the piazza. Anyone wanting to be fussy, can refer to it as the Piazza del Campo . The Campo slants and has a shell shape with a very simple, central, layout that is more of a decoration than a symbol, in nine sections that represent the Council of Nine that once ruled the city. The square faces the Torre del Mangia, the 14th-century tower and the Palazzo Pubblico , the town hall that is full of interest. Nearby is the Palazzo Piccolomini and the Palazzo Sansedoni as well as the Loggia della Mercanzia .
Behind the Loggia is the true heart of the city, which leads into the Via di Città, Banchi di Sopra and the Banchi di Sotto, which is the center of action. Walking up Via di Città, visitors will reach the extraordinary point from where, in a space of a few meters the Duomo , the Spedale Santa Maria Della Scala , the Palazzo del Magnifico and the Museum dell'Opera Metropolitana can all be seen. Not far from here is the Pinacoteca Nazionale , the National Art Gallery. This is the value of Siena, rich in architecture, art and alternative attractions.
Chianti No one could come here and not dedicate at least one day to the Chianti region, in order to taste wine at its source, in season. The same motives, with even more cultural motivation, will lead visitors southwards, towards Montalcino, westwards and eastwards to Montepulciano. A visit to Pienza should also not be missed and Cetona, a medieval, tranquil village, or Turrita Siena, on the border of Umbria. Pienza The town of Pienza was commissioned by Pio II Piccolomini and designed by Bernardino Rossellino. Corsignano transformed Pienza into an ideal Renaissance city in the middle of the fifteenth century the incarnation of a utopia that stretched beyond architecture. Montepulciano is partly set in the Val di Chiana and partly in Val d'Orcia, and is home to monuments and buildings of renaissance interest. It gives the name to the vineyard that produces the Nobile di Montepulciano, which is an experience in itself.
Chiusi The town of Chiusi is of Etruscan origin, with probable earlier Osco-Umbrina settlements. Its height of power was when the Etruscans dominated Rome. The cathedral and the Etruscan museum should both be visited.
Montalcino Montalcino can be reached by taking the Cassia road. This village was the last to give into Cateau Cambresis and to enter the orbit Cosimo I de Medici. It had even rebuilt the Sienese Republic in exile. Nowadays the Civic Museum and the Diocesano and Archaeological Museums are well worth visiting as are the local wine cellars which produce Brunello di Montalcino, one of the best red wines in existence.
San Gimignano San Gimignano is the city of towers and is found on the road leading to Florence. The turreted horizon must be seen at least once, just to understand what it felt like to live in the dark ages. The cathedral, Civic Museum and art gallery, are all worth visiting.