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How to Have a Perfect Day in Siena
If you have a chance to visit Siena, take it. You'll love it. It is so gracious and accessible, so beautifully planned - the wonderful campo like a great shallow bowl, the herringbone bricks worn smooth with centuries of 'passeggiata'. It is a perfect medieval whole, with majestic towers looking out over the fields and vines of rural Tuscany in undulating splendor all around.
There is something laid back about Siena - maybe it's because it's mainly pedestrianised, so you can browse, window shop in the chic boutiques, gaze at the gothic palaces facades and take your place in Siena's own reality show, 'la passeggiata', performed daily by thousands in the stage-like campo. The point is that you can understand Siena without having to set foot in a single museum. Add to that the stripey Duomo and a glut of good restaurants and you have the makings of a perfect day.
Walk through the medieval streets towards the campo, described by Montaigne as 'the most beautiful square in the world', that was four hundred years ago, but I wouldn't disagree. Occupying the south side of the campo you will see the Palazzo Pubblico, with its wonderful bell tower, the Torre del Mangia. If you're feeling energetic, it's worth the climb for the vertiginous views of the city and the surrounding countryside, perhaps best before lunch though! The less sprightly might like to go into the Palazzo to see the marvelous equestrian portrait of Guidoricci da Fogliano, perhaps by Simone Martini and perhaps not ... but, who cares, it's stunning, so just sit and look. In the room next door, the fabulous frescoes 'Good and Bad in Government' are also well worth the entrance fee.
Perhaps the best way to soak up the atmosphere of Siena is to have lunch in the campo. There are lots of restaurants in this area, but I like to get pizza a taglio from one of the pizza stands, preferably with a plastic cup of rough red wine, find a spot on a warm stone step, and eat it straight out of the wax paper wrapper ... perfetto!
In the afternoon, you can choose between wandering the streets and seeking out the splendid Nannini (Siena's finest gelateria), or a little more sightseeing. There is the mighty Duomo with the delights of the frescoed Libreria Piccolomini and the not-to-be-missed Cripta, containing the recently discovered and gaspingly beautiful 13th-century drywall paintings, the colors of which are still so vivid they will leave you breathless.
For those still standing, across the way there is the Ospedale di Santa Maria della Scala dating from the 13th century with its historic crypts and catacombs. Until the 1980s, this was a functioning hospital, in fact Italo Calvino (the author of Invisible Cities), died here in 1985 in one of the frescoed wards. Now it is transformed into an innovative museum complex showing the Italian flair for blending modern architectural materials such as steel and glass with the ancient brick and stone, much to the complement of both.
By now, it must be nearly aperitivo time, so why not wander back to the campo for a little red drink with maybe some window-shopping on the way. Take a ring side seat outside any of the campo's bars and watch the Sienese parade in their finest. Best of all, and a well-kept secret of the Sienese, is dinner at Da Pappi - a great restaurant in the Civetta district behind the Palazzo Pubblico - it gets busy, so remember to book a table earlier in the day.
Every Wednesday morning, Siena hosts a massive street market selling everything under the Tuscan sun! You'll be tripping over household goods, clothes, leather stuff and food. It's best to get to Siena in time for breakfast and then shop, shop, shop with perhaps a panini from the porchetta van for lunch.
The thing that thrills me most about Siena is the mad, hectic mayhem of Il Palio, a centuries-old bareback horse race around the campo. The Sienese passion for it pulsates at the very center of their beings. Everything about it is riveting and frightening, from the intrigue of the loyal contrade and their brave mercenary riders to the violent frenzy of the race itself; the drums, the taunting songs and the swaggering winners. Il Palio is not about tourists - it's about the Sienese, so just keep quiet, watch and enjoy the spectacle. Either head for the campo and pay a small fortune for a balcony seat (best to book well in advance) or take your chances with the masses in the middle.
For the faint hearted and those with children, the slightly calmer trial races are June 30th and August 4th. For the fearless, Il Palio for real is July 2nd and August 16th.
Amanda and Julian Hyzler run painting holidays and art vacations from their home on the border of Tuscany and Umbria. They have been writing a blog since they moved to Italy in 2006, A Tuscan view, from Umbria.
© Amanda Hyzler 2008
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