Though it was probably no picnic for the residents that endured it, Siena's centuries-long economic downturn during Medici rule can now be appreciated as a retroactive blessing. The lack of medieval funds to undertake demolition or new construction (along with the French taking Siena with virtually no opposition or damage in WWII) has left the city in a fantastically well-preserved Gothic state.
The result, Siena’s twisting historic centre, a Unesco
World Heritage Site, is among Italy's finest strolling grounds. Magnificent
buildings like the Palazzo Comunale and the wondrously ornamental cathedral
demand top billing. Yet with nearly all of Siena’s preserved/restored centre
being postcard-worthy, one could easily spend 48 hours here without spending a
single euro on admission fees and still come away fulfilled and enthralled.
The following is a prospective itinerary for those
wanting to explore behind the city’s mesmerising facades, with breaks in some
of the city’s profusion of fine restaurants.
Siena was the first European city to limit motor
traffic in its historic centre back in 1966, making the city especially
pleasant to explore on foot. For a sensory overload spike, head for Piazza del
Duomo to absorb the Siena Cathedral, one of Italy's finest Gothic structures.
Construction was largely completed between 1196 and 1215, though work continued
well into the 13th Century. Gaze at the white, green and red marble exterior
façade, before entering to enjoy the cathedral’s primary feature, the
inlaid-marble floor, decorated with 56 detailed panels executed between the
14th to 16th Centuries.
Arrive at Slow Food-endorsed
Il Carroccio (closed Wednesdays) much later than 12:30pm and risk a
prolonged wait out on the sidewalk. Their pasta offerings include the
especially popular pici, a thick
spaghetti typical to the region.
Unless the weather is just too good to miss, head back
to Piazza del Duomo for the three-in-one Museale
di Santa Maria della Scala, which is, even at a jog, a two hour indoor
commitment. This former hospice for pilgrims and, until relatively recently, a
working hospital, contains almost a millennium of history, religious art and
ruins. Vivid, secular frescoes by Domenico di Bartolo, lauding the good works
of the hospital and its patrons fill the ground floor along with the Chiesa
della Santissima Annunziata, a 13th-century church (remodelled in the 15th
Downstairs you will find the original panelling from Fonte
Gaia, the famous fountain in Piazza
del Campo, as well as a gloomy, but intriguing little chapel.
Finally, housed in ancient, arched basement tunnels,
is the Museo
Archeologico containing a vast collection of pieces found near Siena,
including elaborate Etruscan alabaster funerary urns and gold Roman coins.
The ache that accompanies the first viewing of the
menu at Enoteca I Terzi (Via dei Termini 7; closed Sundays) can be especially
acute if one knows they are only getting one shot at ordering from the
frequently changing handmade pasta list and main course options, including
suckling pig with plums in apple sauce.
Once basic Siena orientation is established, it is especially
pleasing to climb the 400 steps of Torre
del Mangia for pulse-quickening views of the city. The tower, built on
Piazza del Campo in 1344, was at the time a remarkable engineering feat and one
of the tallest nonsectarian towers in Italy (102m).
Lunch at L'Osteria
is done with 50% locals, 50% tourists and 100% occupancy, so endeavour to
arrive as near to noon as possible. Despite increasing popularity with
visitors, this is still strictly a neighbourhood place, serving uncomplicated
dishes at everyday prices, including the unspeakably savoury antipasto of sardines
in pesto oil.
Saint Catherine of Siena (1347 to 1380) is co-patron
saint of Italy and one of Europe's patron saints. Following the Saint Catherine
trail is, oddly, one of Siena’s less crowded diversions. Begin by stepping into
di Santa Caterina where Catherine was born and lived with her parents and
her 23 siblings (legend has it). The rooms were converted into small chapels in
the 15th Century and are decorated with frescoes depicting her life.
Adjacent to the lower-level chapel is Catherine’s virtually untouched, nearly
For more of Catherine, quite literally, visit the
imposing, 13th-century Chiesa
di San Domenico, just a few minutes west on Piazza San Domenico. The much
altered, barnlike interior is where Catherine took her vows and allegedly
performed miracles. The chapel contains a portrait painted during her lifetime,
but the, ahem, headliner is Saint Catherine’s severed head, displayed in a
15th-century tabernacle. Nearby is her desiccated thumb. Most of the remainder
of her body is preserved in Rome.
Claustrophobics may want to steer clear of the lower
dining levels at Antica
Osteria da Divo, which are housed in Etruscan tombs. This splurge-worthy
place serves a variety of inventive dishes include the rolled pork filled with
Tuscan bacon and fresh pecorino cheese, truffle sauce and potatoes purée.
Reservations are strongly recommended.
The article 'Two days in Siena, Italy' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.