What a jam-packed day! A full 12-hours on the Best of Tuscany Tour with Walkabout Florence. We basically flew through Siena, a Chianti farm / vineyard, San Gimignano, and Pisa. I’d like to think this was a preview of each town for when I come back! I have to break these cities up into different posts. There’s just so much information. First stop, Siena.
This is a proud city. It’s one of the most well maintained medieval cities in Italy. Banking supposedly started here. The Palazzo Salimbeni, is the oldest, continuously operating for bank. People often wonder how Siena became so successful considering they aren’t near a body of water: banking and trade.
Siena has an interesting history. It’s made up of 3 hill towns that meet in the center. They came together and fought hard against the Romans when they invaded. They battled back and forth but in the end, the Romans defeated them. Rome’s second road was built here.
When I visited, they were actually prepping for the Palio, the big horse race held twice each summer. This race is a BIG deal here. One year, the Pope told the city he was coming… during the Palio! The city actually told the Pope, we’d love to have you but you’re coming during the Palio which we have in honor of St Virgin Mary (religious reasons of course) sooo you can come either before or after. So the Pope changed his plans and came earlier than planned.
The Palio has been held continuously since 1581 – the longest continuously running horse race of its kind. It’s a race between the 17 contrades (neighborhoods/districts). Each contrada is represented by an animal. Your contrada is essentially your family. It’s who you are. Every district has its own government. The race is hosted in the Piazza de Campo, the main square in the center of Siena where the Palazzo Publico (city hall) and its clock tower stands. For the race, the plaza stone grounds are replaced with dirt that is watered daily before the race. Bed mattresses are padded around the track to protect fallen jockeys and horses. And there is basically only one rule: you can’t pull someone off a horse. Talk about protection. On race day, 55,000 people fill the Piazza to witness the much anticipated competition. The race lasts for only 1 and half minutes and the stadium during that time is completely silent. The winner gets a Palium (silk banner) but the real reward is Pride. The winner celebrates for 3 months after the race.
The proudest building in town might be the Siena Duomo. From the outside, it has a lot of similarity to the Duomo in Florence. They started building this in the 12th century, then got hit with the plague and construction ended, and then it restarted. They had a lot of artists contribute pieces and designs to the church. Our guide joked that they’re happy that they got all 3 of the 4 ninja turtles to complete their cathedral – Micheangelo, Leonardo, and Raphael. Connected is one room in the Piccolomini Library which holds the one of the most well maintained art frescoes on its ceiling. These were by the far the most vibrant art frescoes I’d ever seen (not saying much) which gave me a better idea what a lot of the other art pieces I had seen elsewhere would have looked like in its time.