The city on a hill - and on a crayon
Siena is famous for its reddish-brown earth. But the medieval town also has a colorful history.
The burnt sienna in every big box of crayons is named for the color of the earth around Siena, Italy - a reddish-brown hill town of medieval buildings, narrow alleyways, and old squares surrounded by vineyards, olive groves, and cypress trees.Skip to next paragraph
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Seen from the high ground of its nearby fortress, Siena's massive white cathedral with its gleaming zebra-striped bell tower stands in startling contrast to the sienna-colored town.
The proportions of the town - laid out on three hills by medieval architects and town planners - delight the eye.
Although Siena is a small city(about 60,000 inhabitants, 15,000 of them inside the town walls), it has been an important center of civilization since the Roman Empire, and has an artistic heritage in Tuscany that is second only to Florence.
Small and free of cars, virtually unchanged inside its ancient walls since the Middle Ages, Siena provides quite a contrast to bustling Florence, which is less than an hour away. (The two cities are centuries-old enemies.)
The centerpiece of the town is the Piazza del Campo, "the most beautiful square in Italy," according to the Renaissance writer Montaigne. The Campo resembles a giant scallop shell ringed with Gothic palaces whose facades curve to follow its outline, anchored by the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) with its slender Mangia Tower.
All the palaces were designed to be seen from the Palazzo Pubblico; from any other vantage point, the buildings look slightly askew.
Twice a year, in July and August, there's a colorful, historic horse race around this square called the Palio. (See story.) No quaint custom revived for the tourist trade, the Palio is serious business and has been since the 14th century.
This ancient festival between Siena's districts, or contrade, offers an insight into the quirkiness of the Sienese character. "My wife and I are from different contrade," confides Mario Pescini, a Siena hotelier. "During Palio, we hardly talk to each other.
"We Sienese," he adds proudly, "we are not normal."
Fierce pride in all things Sienese and a passionate love for their beautiful city have always been characteristic of the city's inhabitants. They had planned to build a cathedral larger than St. Peter's Bascilia in their town, but that was before the plague decimated their ranks in the mid-14th century.
The old town records (on view in the Palazzo Piccolomini) are bound between wood panels painted by the city's greatest artists.
Every paving stone of the local pietra serena on Siena's narrow streets is smooth and perfectly fitted - and carefully replaced by hand when needed.
The usual Italian promenade, the passeggiata, goes on most of the day here, up and down the curving Banchi di Sopra (Il Corso to the Sienese). This stroll - a hilly one like all walks in Siena - leads past tasteful shops in 14th-century buildings of sienna-colored brick and passes the world's oldest surviving bank, founded when these buildings were new.
Pick up a snack of Siena's specialties - panforte or the spicier panpepato, both sweets, or ricciarelli, an almond- and orange-flavored cookie. Then, as you munch, continue the walk along Via di Citta.
If you're visiting in late June or mid-August, some glimpse of preparations for the Palio are sure to surface along the way - a youth in sumptuous velvet hurrying down the street toward a rehearsal of little boys twirling brightly colored flags, which they bear with pride in the historic procession before the horse race.
When further exploring inside the old town walls, try to avoid the few streets that permit cars: Walking along a medieval street with no sidewalks and 21st-century traffic seriously dilutes Siena's charm.
There are two required sightseeing stops in town. First is the Duomo (cathedral), surely one of the loveliest in Europe. Of note are the inlaid marble and mosaic floor, carved pulpit, and lushly frescoed Piccolomini Library.
Then cross the street and visit the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala. A hospital since the 800s, it opened to the public as an exhibition space in the 1990s, and is well worth a visit for its medieval interior and frescoes.
The other required stop is the museum in the Palazzo Pubblico, especially the Sala del Mappamondo frescoed by the Sienese master Simone Martini, and the next room, decorated with scenes of good and bad government according to Sienese philosophy.
Art lovers will also want to see the work of artists of the Sienese school in the Pinacoteca Nazionale.
After dark, students from Siena's ancient university (founded in 1241) lounge on the pavement of the illuminated Campo, while tourists eat slightly overpriced food in the Campo's sidewalk cafes.