Located in the Tuscany region of Italy, Siena is arguably Italy’s most well-preserved medieval town. Siena’s historic city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The heartbeat of this area is Piazza del Campo which has long served as the social and political center of the town. It is a great place to stop when first entering Siena for a bite to eat or drink while taking a visual journey back in time. A unique feature of the Campo is that it also serves as horse track for the famous race known as the Palio. You can get a sense of the track in the image below.
There is a lot that could be written about the Palio but I’ll be brief. In short, the race is run twice a year with riders representing each of the town’s districts. The Sienese are extremely passionate about their own districts. While winning certainly brings genuine joy and pride, the days of festivals leading up to race sound like a party of epic of proportions with everyone living their best life. Tickets and hotels for the Palio come at a premium and should be booked well in advance.
A key building in the Campo is the Palazzo Pubblico which serves as the city town hall with a museum inside. Off to the left side of this building (as you are looking at it) is the Torre del Mangia (completed in 1348). It was built to be the same height as the Duomo (Church) of Sienna to show equality of church and state.
The tower’s bell was originally used to signal the end of the workday as well as the opening and closing of the city gates. It is one of the tallest medieval towers in Italy. The tower is open to climb…an opportunity I missed.
All around the Campo, the aged palaces of a bygone era belie what lies beyond the walls – vast art collections from the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of these works are frescos. While tempting to visit, I tend to lean more towards architectural sights. And, given my limited time, I decide to hit the streets.
Leaving the Campo, there are seemingly an unlimited number of streets to take with each offering such promise. It reminds me a lot of the Gothic Quarter (el Gotic) in Barcelona but much larger. I could have spent days just strolling through the tight walkways with medieval buildings lining each side. There is always another road to take and breathtaking sights to behold just around the next corner.
Beyond the Campo, the next key building on my list was the Duomo of Siena, Completed in 1296, it is widely proclaimed as one of the most beautiful buildings in all of Italy and is a must see when visiting Siena. In fact, it will likely be impossible to miss because it dominates the skyline.
After spending some time taking in the Duomo, I begin looking for high ground to get a skyline shot of Siena. This leads me to an old hilltop fortress – Fortezza Medicea – built in the mid 1500s.
The fort’s history is a sad one for Siena. Construction of a fort on this site first began in 1548 by Spain (supporting their Florence ally) after it defeated the Republic of Siena. The fortress was destroyed by the Sienese in an uprising a few years later but, after Florence regained control (assisted by Spain) they rebuilt it to prevent future uprisings by the Sienese. The fortress was eventually demilitarized in the late 1700s and, after restoration, today serves as a public park with events such as wine tastings and performances held inside. And, it offers a great view of Siena.
Sienna’s historic city center – as it looks now – took shape in the late 1200’s to mid 1300’s but Siena existed long before. Siena began as an Etruscan settlement in the period 900 – 400 BC. The Romans then colonized the area around 60 AD. Under Roman rule, Siena flourished as a banking and textile center and was a major city in Medieval Europe.
Siena’s status in the middle ages, as often the case, led to struggles for power and influence with other city states and from within. The war with Florence is one example with lasting implications. The victorious Florentines, directed all of the business once controlled by Siena into Florence. This left Siena isolated and, in a sense, almost frozen in time in its medieval splendor.
Walking through Siena, I find a bit of pleasure in the irony of Siena’s history. Almost 500 years later after falling to Florence and enduring economic exile, Siena is now a prime travel destination. The impact of Florence’s conquest – Siena being locked in time – is now the very reason people come to Siena. Once again, the city is flourishing.