Our Italian escapade… the sights and sounds of Siena…

Siena… to be honest, I had never heard of Siena before we made plans to go there from Rome with my friend. I had heard of Tuscany in Italy, yes… but no specific places or areas within the Tuscany region. So I did not really know what to expect in Siena (as I did not check out the place from books or internet) except that the hubby had very fond memories of the time when he was in Siena many years ago… and that my friend, too, claimed that it is a very nice place. Well… if the two of the men travelling with me said so, then I suppose they could not both be wrong, right?

And they were right!

Siena is indeed a lovely place (as you will see from the photos below, I hope) and I enjoyed our stay in that small city even though it was very brief. We took an express bus from Rome and arrived in Siena 3.5 hours later. It was a smooth bus ride with some lovely landscapes along the way. Of course, I also napped through some parts of the journey… hehehe 🙂 From the bus drop-off point, we took a taxi to our hotel, located on the other side of the old town of Siena.

Situated in an old building, the interior of Pensione Palazzo Ravizza, the hotel we stayed at, was charming… and so was our room. Although our room looked out onto the street in front… instead of the Tuscan countryside, unlike our friend’s room (he had booked early for a suite with a view), we still loved the looks and charm of our room. In fact, it somewhow reminded me of the room that my younger sis and her family were given when we stayed at Amiot hotel in Paris. Not the size or the interior decoration, but the set up.

The non-descript building where our hotel was located… just outside but still close to the hustle and bustle of the old town centre of Siena. The frontal view might be just of the street… but it had…

… a lovely garden at the back…where breakfast was served…

…  that overlooked the countryside of Tuscany. Simply awesome! 🙂

Of course we had to go to the edge of the garden to be able to admire such a view but there were seats there for those who would like to have their breakfast while enjoying the view. Unfortunately, the seats were a little damp on the morning that we wanted to do so (which was also the morning before we had to leave for Venice)… argghhh… unlucky us!

But not my friend, who chose to have his breakfast on the balcony of his junior suite! Wahhh…envy, envy… But then, this was the very reason why he chose this hotel and this particular room, so he deserved what he got lah! 🙂

As for our room… well, just a normal standard room for us…

… and we only had a street view… but one with the cathedral of Santa Maria if we were prepared to lean out a little of the window (left pic)… and it was a charming room… so we liked it well enough. 🙂

We were lucky that on the afternoon that we arrived in Siena (which was a Sunday), there were processions going on that day… as part of the build-up to the palio (a mediaeval horse race). So we managed to catch the processions of two separate teams at different parts of the old town… as we were meandering through the streets of the historical centre of Siena.

If we had stayed a bit longer in Siena, we would have caught the horse racing competition on 2 July, too. But we decided to leave after staying 2 nights, in accordance with our original plan so that we could spend some time in Venice. Well… after learning that it cost as much as EUR400 for a seat during the race… it was not something that we would miss too greatly lah! 🙂

So… here are some of the sights and sound (well, you will have to imagine the sound unfortunately ;-))… of our enjoyable walk through the historical centre of Siena… which is listed in UNESCO World Heritage Sites by the way…

(as usual you can click on any of the photos to enlarge if you think it is too small to see or roll over it for background info…) 

After checking in and refreshing ourselves very quickly… we went back out into the hot sun and made our way to the famous, beautiful shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, where the palio is held every year on 2 July and 16 August…and has taken place, without interruption, since the 14th century…

… to look for food! We decided to try our luck at any of these small eateries there, i.e. those that have empty tables which are away from the hot glare of the afternoon sun! A nice cold coke had never tasted so good! And thank goodness it came in a big glass! hehehe 🙂

After lunch… we decided to look around this famous piazza.

Piazza del Campo consists of a central area paved with brick which is surrounded by a roadway. It was originally divided into two sectors which were united at the end of the 12th century to create a single semi-circular open space… sloping to one side.

The piazza resembles the inside of a huge sea-shell left stranded on a Tuscan hill with 10 lines converging towards the entrance to the Palazzo Pubblico, dividing the area into 9 slices (standing for the Government of Nine, a group of nine magistrates who presided over the city from 1287 to 1355 and commissioned many public buildings or issued decrees related to them). PS the photo above shows the protective fence erected and the sand put on the roadway in preparation for the famous horse race, the palio.

In 1262 and 1297, regulations were put in place to ensure, amongst other things, that the façades around the piazza would be uniform and in harmony with the Palazzo Pubblico (left picture). This is certainly the case with the beautiful Palazzo Sansedoni (right), which replaced three older buildings, as it sports the same elegant Gothic windows/arches and uses a very similar colour of bricks.

The left picture was taken in the middle of hot afternoon… and the right picture was taken around 8.30pm when we decided to walk through the piazza to find food, again! As you can see… the  piazza central area is a fav spot for what we Malays called “melepak” (chilling out). 🙂 There was still a lot of people just sitting around in the central area when we made our way back from dinner… much much later!

And… it was while we were looking around and admiring the piazza after lunch… and posing for photos, too, of course ;-)… that we caught one of the competing teams starting their parade through the streets of the historical centre of Siena from one of the small alleys leading into the piazza… nice!

This is the first of the two teams we saw parading through the old town on the day of our arrival… what a nice and grand welcome we were given, no? 🙂

White and bright blue are the colours associated with this district (or contrada in Italian) that lies south of Piazza del Campo, called Onda. The emblem of this district is a dolphin… which is reflected on their costumes (in the style of the 14th century) and drums as well as the street lamps on the wall.

Now… if you think that the procession, the twirling of banners and other related activities are performed only to cater to the tourist crowds… you are totally wrong!.

From what we could see… the parading through the streets of Siena is both a kind of psychological warm-up one week before the race… as a well as a social event uniting the people of a particular district in support of their team. If you notice, the photo on the far right shows a woman wearing a scarf with the colours of Onda and a man serving drinks to the men taking part in the procession.

In fact, it is difficult to imagine the fervour of the locals in supporting their team… before and during the palio. We met up with this team again a few streets away… going through the street that belong to another contrada.

And not long after… while checking out another area of the old town, we heard the beat of the drums. When we walked towards the sound, we saw another team doing their parade… oh là là… how nice! 🙂

This second team, dressed in white and orange (the colours of the contrada of Leocorno – Unicorn -, a district west of Piazza del Campo), was first seen entering the church of San Giuseppe (which ‘belongs to’ the rival contrada of Onda) and came out several minutes later to continue with their parade.

And then we saw them again, at another junction…

… with the supporters faithfully following alongside and behind the team… recognisable by the scarf that they wore… sporting the team’s colours and emblem (the unicorn).

And one more time… when we were passing through the Piazza del Campo (with my friend) on our way to a restaurant for dinner a few hours later… amazing!

It was really exciting to see them doing their parading inside the piazza.  Guess it must be even more exciting to see them on the actual day of the palio with all the different contrade… and with an even bigger crowd!

The supporters following loyally behind the team, including the mayor of that district… all sporting a scarf with the team’s colours and emblem… singing their team song. My, my… such fervour!! 🙂

If you think that the prize for the winner of the horse race is something valuable… you are right… but not in the monetary sense! The trophy that is up for contention is… as the name suggests… just a palio (a painted banner with an image of the Virgin Mary). But it is the prestige of winning the palio that is highly sought after. And for every race, a new palio will be comissioned by well-known artists.

So… it was indeed our good fortune to have been in town… and in the piazza… while they were having their parades. Being a part of it all added an interesting and very local flavour to our experience of Siena.

In fact, the hubby was even fortunate enough to catch the teams doing their practice runs with their horses (which are allocated by lots to the competing teams) very early in the morning, at about 6.30am… when he was doing his morning run in the old town. If you look closely… you will see that there were many spectators watching the practice runs this early in the morning! Incredible!

But of course… apart from these special events, the historical centre of Siena itself is an interesting place to visit.

This is the courtyard inside the Palazzo Pubblico.

The female wolf with the two infants suckling looks familiar, does it not? This is because the Sienese, who aspired to become the leading power in the region (a kind of new Rome as it were) and wanted to establish a historiographical tradition for the city, recycled the legend, only adding two horses to the story and renaming the twins Aschius and Senius (after which Siena takes its name). The courtyard of Palazzo Pubblico, its 102m high bell tower (called Torre del Mangia) and its crenellated façade were certainly intended to convey statements about the city’s aspirations to regional greatness (ahead of its arch-rival Florence).

As a historical centre… there are many well-preserved buildings from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries as well as an impressive wall girdle and a series of gates (some dating back to the Romans) in Siena.

This photo shows one of the several gates into the historical centre of Siena… this one is called Porta Tufi.

The gate as seen from the outside (left). There is a bus stop just outside of this old town gate; and the beautiful view of the Tuscan countryside (right)… as seen from a small park just inside the town gate of Tufi.

And the followings were the two main gates in the Middle Ages, dating back to the Romans but altered subsequently.

To the southeast is Porta Romana, which was transformed into a fortified outpost from 1327 onwards …

… and to the north, Porta Camollia.

And this is the majestic façade of the Baptistery of San Giovanni — the photo was taken from Piazza San Giovanni. 

Note the two white columns on one of the windows (in the middle) on the building on the right. The same style could also be seen on Palazzo Publico and Palazzo Sansedoni. This white-column style of window appeared to be a signature style of the old towns in the Tuscany region… as I also saw them when we visited other old towns during our day excursion the next day. The hubby tells me that they are a distinctive trait of Gothic architecture.

The same window style could also be seen on the following building… Palazzo Salimbeni, the seat of…

… Banca Monte dei Paschi, which was founded in 1472 as a monte di Pietà (in English, mount of piety, i.e. a mediaeval financial institution that offered loans to the needy…). It is Europe’s oldest bank… and probably one of the world’s oldest too.

This beautiful and imposing building, on the other hand, is the Cathedral of Siena dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta… and also known as the Duomo… which is located at Piazza del Duomo... and whose tower and dome could be seen from the window of our hotel room (see fifth photo from the top of this page).

This current building was built over an existing church that was in turn built over a pagan temple that was dedicated to the goddess Minerva.

The cathedral displays an interesting mix of Gothic and Romanesque designs style on its exterior façade. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to enter the cathedral to have a look at the beautiful interior (but the hubby was lucky enough to visit the interior on his first trip to Siena).

Another interesting feature of the architecture in this historical town of Siena is the arches that link one building to another. There are many of them. They must have served as structural elements providing support to the buildings… the hubby thinks.

Meandering through the streets of the historical centre of Siena really takes you several centuries back with the old world charm of its buildings...

… and its streets (… well, it certainly did for me! :)).

But I think what fascinated me more about this very old town which dates back to the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries… was the smaller details that I saw while we were doing our walk… brief though it may be.

These little metal structures which look like candle or torch holders are found all over the old town… with varied designs and styles. But with modern electricity, I guess they no longer hold the importance and no longer serve the purpose that they were meant for… namely to illuminate the town at night.

Still… they certainly were a nice fixture… and a sweet reminder of the old days… I adore them!

Just as I adore these cute metal hooks for tethering the horses in the mediaeval days. 🙂

And with the palio race coming up… these were another interesting fixture in the old town: lamps painted in the colours and some even designed in the emblem of the respective contrada or district. Cute are they not… especially the dolphin? 🙂

Another interesting fixture in the old town… beside the usual fountains.  It is self explanatory, I am sure… no? If not, roll over the photo… to find out lah!

And I think this must be one of the most creative ways I have seen of displaying the gelati (ice creams). Don’t you feel like having one when you see this photo? I certainly did...  yummy, yummy… 🙂

And to sum up this entry on Siena… I thought I’d share these shots, too.

This must have been the longest vertical moving walkway that I have had the pleasure of taking!

Inaugurated in April 2011, the five stretches of moving walkways extending over a length of 283m and a height difference of 62m are very convenient for getting from Porta Camollia to the railway station… or vice-versa (provided there is no breakdown, of course!). There is a shopping centre at the foot (piazzale Rosselli) of this escalator system, which is very convenient for last-minute shopping lah! hehehe… The escalator cost EUR9 million and benefited from a financial contribution from the foundation of Banca Monte dei Paschi.

A view of the Palazzo Pubblico and the Basilica of Santa Maria dei Servi (also known as San Clement)… washed by the beautiful colour of sunset. I think the architecture and colours of the buildings in Siena really stand out when illuminated by the evening light… don’t you think?

Beautiful colours… beautiful town… Siena…

Related entries on Tuscany:

Other entries part of ‘our Italian escapade’:

5 thoughts on “Our Italian escapade… the sights and sounds of Siena…

  1. Thank you for your kind comment, Rachel. I am sure you will enjoy your trip to this beautiful medieval city in Tuscany.

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  2. Thank you for posting this beautiful description with photos! I’m reading a novel titled Julia, which takes place in Siena. Your blog has been a fun visual and inspiration to plan a trip just before Palio.

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  3. Pingback: Why add another blog to the millions already around? « paulzan

  4. Thanks for your comment. PS actually, the escalator is not at an airport (the closest being at Pisa), it is near Siena’s railway station (60 metres downhill) … the Italian word antiporto refers to the area outside Siena’s main city gate, as Porta Camollia is an outer gate.

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  5. After those colorful dry pics of the mediteranean jewel Siena I feel even more the contrast about the gloom grey chilling “porta di airport” ,I mean those rolling escalators in the airport underground , they actually express “the end of”

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