Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Italy - The Medieval Walled City of Siena

Siena – a breath of fresh air after Rome.  Oh, I loved Rome, but is was just so very busy and crowded and we had spent three days being full-fledged tourists seeing as much as we could see, walking until our feet hurt, and dodging traffic every time we crossed the street.  We were all ready for a change, to explore a different part of Italy, and Siena has a peacefulness and simple beauty about it that was just what we needed.  Life feels slower here, more deliberate - this was the Italy I had hoped to find.

There were still tourists in this lovely city, but not in the abundance as Rome.  After all, the historic center of Siena has been declared by UNESCO a World Heritage Site and it wouldn't take us long to see why people are drawn to Siena.  While Rome has sites dating back to the Roman Empire mixed in amongst a bustling modern city, walking through Siena transports you back to medieval times, the architecture very Gothic in style.  

As we walked the streets, if I had suddenly heard the sound of horse hooves pounding against the cobblestone and a group of shiny silver knights emerged around a corner and raced past on their sturdy white and black steeds, I wouldn't have been surprised.   When you enter Siena, the gray and brown stone and bricks wrap around you like a warm embrace and you could easily think you had traveled back in time some 500, 600 or maybe 700 years ago, if it wasn't for the signs of modern day society, like a scooter parked on the side of the street,

or a boy rushing past in Nikes and jeans,

or a colorful hydrangea nestled in a neon green pot decorating the street.

Even laundry hanging out to dry in Siena makes a postcard picture, and yes, they really do hang laundry out there windows here.

The mix of old and new even extends to a street worker simply sweeping up after the tourists and locals.   

The brilliant orange of his uniform is what first attracts your attention to him, the color looking so out of place against the medieval backdrop.  But then you notice his broom.  If there were street workers in this city 500 years ago, they may very well have been using a broom just like this.   

Our travels to Siena started early in the morning as we waited for the train in Rome.

 We would ride many trains in Italy, every one of them lulling Leah to sleep like a baby.

When we arrived at the Siena train station, we decided to make our way to Hotel Italia on foot, the place where we would be spending the next three nights.  And how did we find the hotel exactly?  With the help of some garbage cans.  I'm serious - garbage cans.  They pointed the way.  As we stood in front of the train station turning in circles trying to figure out which way we were to go, there is was - a garbage can with two simple words written on, "Hotel Italia," and an arrow pointing up and back towards the train station.  Siena, you see, is built on a hill - well, actually it's built on three hills - three high hills.  And the train station was built into the side of one of those hills - down at the bottom to be more exact.  The garbage can was telling us to go up, but how?   "There had been escalators going up inside the train station," I thought to myself.  "I think we need to use them."  Eric wasn't quite convinced but reluctantly he followed me up the first set of escalators, and then a second set.  There we found a doorway into a long tunnel and another escalator, going up.  

And then another after that.  

And yet another one.  

This went on for some time and after the ninth escalator (or maybe tenth - there is some internal family disagreement about just how many escalators there were), we arrived at another set of doors leading outside.  As we exited the long tunnel pulling all our luggage behind us, we could see the walls of the old city to our left, behind us was an incredible vista of the Tuscan valley, 

and directly in front of us stood another garbage can.  Again, it simply said "Hotel Italia" but this time the arrow pointed to the right.  We turned right and headed down the street and a mere five minutes later, we were standing in front of the Hotel.  Hotel Italia - whoever thought up the idea to put directions on the garbage cans - brilliant!

This hotel room was much smaller than the one in Rome, but just as unique with bright colors, a red brick arched ceiling overhead, and terrecotta tile under our feet.  It was cozy and welcoming.  The girls each had their own beds pushed to one side of the room, 

and Eric and my bed sat in front of a set of tall french doors we could open to let in the fresh Tuscan air.

Eager to explore Siena, we headed out right away towards the historic center of the city.  To get there, you need to pass through one of the gates that will let you side its medieval walls.

 Once inside, we twisted and turned through the narrow winding streets,

and saw some interesting sights along the way.  Like this little alley with a parking sign above it, but apparently, there's only parking for one, and it better be a tiny car.

We noticed the unique horse rings mounted on the stone walls.  I wonder how long this guy has been hanging there?

And the doors - some inviting and some not so much.  Like this one.  It's beautiful, but those faces.  They are huge door knockers, but they look as if they may bite your hand off if you try to use them.

We walked downhill,

 and up stairways that led to different streets.

We apprehesively stuck our heads through open doorways, not sure if we were allowed to enter, only to be met with magnificent sights like this:

And sometimes, you would pass by a little opening between buildings and be met by a view like this:

Some of the narrow winding streets were lined with small shops selling beautiful Italian made merchandise - like the colorful ties pictured below.  

There were art shops selling paintings and prints, textiles, gorgeous bowls and dishes.  There were tiny little boutiques, each with their own style, selling clothing, purses, jewelry, and scarves - oh the Italian made scarves!    Even the men's stores all had scarves.  I tried talking Eric into it each time we passed a handsomely dressed Italian man sporting one, but he wasn't buying it.  

And there were lots of shops selling delicious food - oils, vinegars, colorful pasta noodles and sauces, bread and pastries, coffee - and they were so hard to resist.  We didn't have the facilities during our stay in Siena to make our own meals, and it was still the first week of a two week trip.  Hauling around all of our luggage was exhausting enough.  We really didn't need to add bottles of olive oil or bags of beautiful pasta - but boy was I tempted!

We kept running into this odd and, please forgive me for saying this, but I found it be be a somewhat disturbing sight.

I don't mean to belittle this statute because it's actually extremely important to the Sienese.  It's just that whenever I saw it, it struck me as.... well, look at the picture very closely.  How does it make you feel?  This statue is based on a myth that Rome was founded by two brothers, Romulus and Remus, who it is said were thrown into the Tiber River as infants when their grandfather was overthrown by his brother (their great uncle) who wanted to kill all the potential male heirs.  A she-wolf saved them, suckling them until they were found by some shepards who took them in and raised them.  As adults, the brothers discovered what their great uncle had done, they killed him, returned their grandfather to the throne, and then went on to found Rome.  Siena is said to have been founded by Senius and Aschius, two sons of Remus.  In fact, some claim the name Siena is derived from Senius.  And that folks is the story and why we would see this interesting but very symbolic sight all over the city.

It would be fun to live in a city with such a story behind it, but maybe I would rather have this porcupine as my symbol.  He seems a bit more lighthearted and almost comical compared to the she-wolves and the suckling babes. 

We would see this porcupine around Siena as well, but never figured out its significance here.

As last we reached the heart of the old city - the Piazza del Campo (the town square).  As with the rest of the city, the Il Campo as it's also know had a very, very old feel about it.  It's regarded as one of Europe's greatest medieval squares.  Unlike the many other city piazzas we've seen in Europe, this one was shaped like a great shell, the large open area surrounded by buildings, some of which date back to the 13th century, sloping down towards the Palazzo Pubblico (the town hall) with it's bell tower, the Torre del Mangia, towering overhead.  

The bell tower was built back in the 1300s and designed to be taller than the bell tower in Siena's great historical rival, the city of Florence.  Sitting in the back of the square is the Fonte Gaia, or Fountain of Joy.  The original design dates back to 1419, although some of the sculptures have been replaced since then.

We would be drawn over and over again to this alluring Piazza, the sloping ground beaconing us to take a seat as if we were in an old theater to watch a show.  The entertainment?  The architecture, the history, the people around us speaking different languages so we could only guess at what they were saying. And the pigeons.  Yes, we watched the pigeons too.  Remember, it's springtime and those boys were strutting their stuff trying to attract the ladies.  

The girls loved running around the square, chasing the pigeons or just each other.  

There were less people and they could stray farther from us as there was no concern here about them getting lost in the crowd. 

Late one afternoon, we even got to participate in a balloon release in the great Piazza.  A group of children showed up in the square holding bundles of blue balloons that they started to distribute to the crowd.  Ellie and Leah ran over and each nabbed one.  We weren't sure at first what the intent was, but slowly we realized that those with the balloons were gathering into one of three groups.  

We were part of a huge smiley face spread across the cobblestone Piazza, and high up in the bell tower someone was taking a photo of it.  After standing in one of the eyes for a few minutes, we heard the countdown. 

"Dieci. Nove. Otto..."

As we heard "Uno," the crowd released the balloons, everyone cheering as they slowly rose up above the rooftops of these ancient buildings and disappeared into the sky that matched their color. 

This balloon release was sponsored by the local rotary club, but we aren't sure what they were celebrating.  That was okay - it was just fun to have been a part of it anyway.

We stayed in Siena for three nights, spending one of those days driving around the Tuscan countryside and the other two days exploring Siena itself.  We did do more than just wander the beautiful tranquil streets of this city, and in the next post I'll share some of those activities with you.  Although really, I loved visiting this city so much that just wandering the streets would have been perfectly fine with me.  

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