If you are planning a trip to Tuscany, you will surely have come across the medieval town of Siena. Being located in the south of the region – only a few miles from Florence – it is nestled in the beautiful Chianti area.
Siena is one of those destinations that you cannot really skip if you wish to savor the authentic taste of this area of Italy. Far from the clamor of the big cities, it stands on three sandstone hills and is still surrounded by the ancient city walls, which date back to the fourteenth century. In fact, visiting Siena means taking a jump of about 600 years back in time! Walking through its narrow alleys, you will have the impression of meeting a knight in shining armor or an elegantly dressed lady in colorful clothes at any moment.
It is precisely its urban buildings that make it an extraordinary example of a medieval city and for this reason it has been proclaimed a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. By mistake, tourists tend to believe that it takes just a few hours to visit Siena’s attractions, but once you arrive in the city, you realize that stopping at least a couple of days is essential to be able to fully capture the magic of Siena’s long history and its unique traditions. But maybe I’m not objective, being born and raised in the city and not being able to imagine a better place to live and work! Even so, I assure you that if you choose Siena as your destination, you will not regret it.
This warm November morning gave me the inspiration for this short article. The day had begun gray and rainy, but around 11 o’clock a beautiful sun came out and I could not really miss the chance to enjoy it – even simply for a vitamin D charge before winter! I dress up my 7-month-old child Bernardino, I prepare his food, load everything in the car and head towards the historic center. Today, we’ll have a picnic in the fortress! After a few minutes, I arrive and park my car. Near the fortress, and therefore also in the historic center, there are two large paid-parking complexes: they are named after the fortress. There is also another named after the stadium as it surrounds the football stadium, where, during winter, the local team plays.
Whoever arrives in Siena from Florence is very likely to begin their visit from the Medici fortress, which is an imposing sixteenth-century fortress, whose internal garden offers a splendid view of the old city.
This green area, full of trees and roses, is a favorite destination for those who want to enjoy some physical activity or simply walk in peace. The building, however, was born with a very different function as it was used to accommodate the Florentine soldiers after Siena was finally conquered by the city. The rivalry between Florence and Siena dates back to the Middle Ages and continued over the centuries; bloody battles and fierce clashes characterized the surrounding countryside until, in the mid-1500s, the city of Siena, so proud until that moment, lost its republican freedom and became, once and for all, the Duchy of Tuscany under the rule of the powerful Medici family.
The memory of this ancient rivalry still remains today, well carved in the memory of the citizens of both cities. Do not worry though … you will not find knights fighting in the Chianti area, but vineyards, castles, scattered cottages and charming villages instead! (On the road between Siena and Florence, I recommend you stop for a Chianti Classico tasting in one of the many farms that you can find in the countryside.)
After putting Bernardino in the stroller, we go inside the fortress; I decide to stop on one of the many benches and enjoy the panorama of my beloved city. From this favorable point, you can admire some of the most important buildings in Siena. Starting from the right, you can see the Duomo very well, entirely covered with dark green and white striped marbles and built on the highest hill, close to God, of course. The church is the religious heart of the city and it is believed that the Virgin Mary, to whom it is dedicated, always watches over the local population.
If you look left, you cannot miss the Torre del Mangia, which is the bell tower of the Palazzo Pubblico, which is located in the main square (Piazza del Campo). The brick tower ends with a part in stone that gives it a touch of elegance, in fact it looks like a crown. The tower marks the time and houses a great bell. We, the citizens of Siena, have the habit of giving a nickname to everything, and even the bell tower has one. It is called “Sunto”, which stands for “Assunta”, in honor of the Virgin Mary.
Between the tower and the Duomo, there is the large brick structure of the Basilica of San Domenico, one of the many medieval churches that dot the historic center. This is particularly famous as it houses the relic of St Catherine of Siena. Devotion to Catherine is still very strong in Siena and attracts pilgrims from all over the world.
Meanwhile, my baby Bernardino has woken up and the time has come for me to shift my focus to the baby! With his belly now full, we leave for the old town – it has a stone slab floor that perfectly lulls a baby to sleep in record time! I decide to go all the way around the walls of the fortress to see, on the opposite side, the new neighborhoods that have sprung up since the beginning of the twentieth century. This is where most of the population now lives, preferring these regions to the expensive historic center.
I leave the fortress and walk towards the historic center, leaving the brick walls of the building on my left. You can easily reach the center from the right, but I must say that I prefer this way by far. The short stretch that leads to the city is, in large part, made up of a green garden with a fountain in the center. Not all the locals know that this park bears the name of Parco della Rimembranza (Park of Memories) and was commissioned by the city at the end of the First World War in memory of the fallen. In fact, each holm oak plant symbolizes a citizen of Siena fallen in that terrible conflict.
I arrive in front of the church of San Domenico, I cross one of the numerous entrances in the pedestrian area and I see that Bernardino begins to show signs of fatigue. A few steps on the rough stones and we are there, mission accomplished, the baby sleeps and his mother can devote herself to shopping in the main street!
By Benedetta Landi, Bellarome Tour Director (Siena and the surrounding area).