Sunshine and tragedy in Siena

At Barbara’s insistence, we began our second week at Trove with a visit to Siena. You may recall that we had attempted a visit to this beautiful Tuscan hill town earlier during my sister’s visit but we had been rained out.  This time, the weather cooperated with warm sunshine all day long. We were looking forward to an excursion after feeling somewhat isolated on the farm all week.

We travelled to Siena by bus which we caught at the train station in Sinalunga (Barbara drove us to the station) and we took the train back.  Once in Siena, we found our way into the historic centre which has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.  Siena is famous for its cuisine, art, museums, medieval cityscape and the Palio which is a horse race held twice a year, once in July and then again in August right in the middle of town.  Like other Tuscan hill towns, Siena was first settled in the time of the Etruscans (c. 900-400 BC).  The Etruscans were an advanced people who changed the face of central Italy through their use of irrigation to reclaim previously unfarmable land.  Throughout Tuscany, medieval towns are perched on the top of hills – a legacy of the Etruscans who strategically built their settlements in well-defended hill forts.

We headed to the unusually shell-shaped town square, the Piazza del Campo which is famous for hosting the Palio horse race. I hope you don’t mind, but I’m going to take a few moments to tell you about this unusual horse race which began in medieval times and has been featured in many movies over the years; you might remember this from the 2008 James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace.

File:Mossa lg palio provenzano 2007 (83).jpg

Source: Wikipedia

Before the race begins, there is a magnificent pageant, the Corteo Storico, which attracts visitors and spectators from around the world. The race is comprised of ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, representing ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. Three times they encircle the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid,  and the race usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. It is not uncommon for a few of the jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza, and it is not unusual to see unmounted horses finishing the race without their jockeys.  What makes this race rather unique is the fact that the jockeys not only try to win, but also try to prevent the other racers from winning by any means possible.  Also, it is the horse that wins the race, not the jockey.  Finally, the winner is the horse that comes in first and the loser is the one that comes in second.  It’s all or nothing with this race.

Piazza del Campo is also home to the Palazzo Pubblico and the Torre del Mangia.  I regretted not going to the top of the Duomo in Florence, especially after my friend Marc mentioned  in one of his comments on the blog that this had been a highlight for him when he visited Florence.  So I was determined to go to the top of the Torre del Mangia which promised and delivered beautiful views of the red rooftops of Siena and the rolling Tuscan countryside beyond.  We also visited the museum in the Palazzo Pubblico which features an amazing series of frescos (which means a mural that has been painted directly on a plaster or stone wall) by Ambrogio Lorenzetti (I never heard of him before but maybe you have) that focus on the theme of good government and the results of good government versus bad.  These frescos showed scenes of day to day life in 14th century Siena – just fascinating!  What was even more impressive was the building itself, a testimony of medieval architecture.  Unfortunately, photos were not permitted in the Palazzo.

View of tower from the palace courtyard.

Narrow staircase to the top of the tower.

Only one person at a time could go up or down.

View from the tower.- Siena and beyond

View of the Duomo from the top of the Bell Tower.

Tuscan countryside beyond the Duomo.

The construction of Siena’s cathedral, or Duomo, began in the 12th century and is a great example of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture.  It reminded me of a smaller version of the Duomo we visited in Milan (remember, the one where we walked the rooftop).  It is unusual for a cathedral in that its axis runs north-south. This is because it was originally intended to be the largest cathedral in the world, with a north-south transept and an east-west nave. After the completion of the transept and the building of the east wall (which still exists and may be climbed by the public via an internal staircase) the money ran out and the rest of the cathedral was abandoned.

Duomo interior

We bought the OPI SI PASS (12 euro) which includes admission to six monuments and attractions associated with the cathedral, including access to the panoramic terrace  on the east wall (mentioned above).  It was a long, full day by the end of which I had reached my capacity to retain any more information.  I must admit that our visit to the cathedral and associated attractions was pretty much a blur to me but we have some great photos that will tell the story even if I can’t.

Museo dell'Opera: Stained glass window removed from the Duomo during WWII for fear it would be destroyed.

The Battistero at the back of the Duomo.

It was while we were on the terrace that tragedy struck.  A gust of wind came out of nowhere and blew Chris’ cherished hat onto the rooftops below. This was the ball cap that Chris had bought a few days before we began our trip and I didn’t realize how attached he was to it.  I watched as he went through all the stages of mourning – denial (maybe another gust of wind will blow it onto the street so I can get it), anger (why did that damn wind blow at that moment), bargaining (if only I had taken my hat off, if only I had tightened it, if only…..) and finally acceptance (my hat is gone).

When we arrived back in Sinalunga we decided to take the local bus back to Trove.  With an hour to kill before the bus came, we enjoyed a couple of glasses of vino in the train station bar that also serves free snacks each night at 7:00. This was probably our fourth time in this bar in a week (first a drink with Ugo on arrival, drinks with Barbara when we did our laundry/grocery run, lunch with Barbara when Chris ran errands with her). The bartender recognized us, and treated us like we were locals.  It was a great way to end the day!


Note:  Chris has commissioned his buddy Kaj in Ottawa to find a replacement ball cap, or rather, to find the exact hat.  Good luck Kaj, you’re a good man to help out your friend this way!


Category: Europe, Italy
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2 Responses
  1. Kaj says:

    Success! I have your replacement!

    • chris says:

      You’re the BEST buddy… maybe I’ll fashion a chinstrap to this one! Looking forward to receiving it in the UK!