Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Month in Tuscany: Siena di Palio

Siena is pure Tuscany: A medieval (8th century Etruscan) city walled in stone, tiny winding cobbled streets, green wooden shutters with potted geraniums at nearly every turn. A few main gates (porte) allow people into and out of town and to this day, most can be closed to deflect marauding hordes of invaders. Nearly every day, we end up visiting Siena for something - crossing through Porta San Marco (nearest our house) gives us the feeling of being welcomed - of being comfortable.

In Siena, we walk everywhere. There are relatively few cars inside the walled city and even the Vespa traffic is manageable. Siena life centers around "il Campo" (the field) - a giant cobbled square in the center of the city. The giant torre (tower) rises above. Yes, you can climb it (we did) - not recommended for claustrophobics. At the base of the torre and serving as the main focus of the campo is the Palazzo Republico - town hall. Even today, this is where civic business is carried out.

Fringing the campo are outdoor bars, restaurants and gelaterie. There is nothing more splendid than arriving in the campo at dusk and having a late dinner. It really feels like a community - everyone is out strolling about till almost midnight. We let our kids run around in the campo while we finished our meals. Often, there are concerts, etc. in the campo.

Siena's most important church is the Duomo (pardon my poor panorama!). It was started in 12C and finished early 14C. It has a striking gothic fa硤e and its main walls are alternating layers of white and green marble (not unlike vegetable lasagna!). At the rear of the Duomo is the Battistero San Giovanni, a heavily frescoed baptistery with a remarkable 15C font.

Siena is divided into "contrade" (districts). Contrade are a cross between legitimate governmental units (like New York's boroughs?) and gang territory. People have tremendous allegiance to their own contrada, especially during the Palio (see below). Each contrada has its own flag/colors which are prominently displayed at street corners and in shops. Some memorable ones: the panthers, the giraffes, the snails, ...

During our first week here in the Siena area, we saw the famous "Palio" - a horserace race between the contrade around the campo dating back to at least the 14th century. Actually, we saw a few rehearsals and watched the final race on TV. To the Senesi, the Palio is not unlike our Super Bowl. That is, it is a BIG DEAL. I should really write a lot more about this at some point soon.

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