This year we extended our summer by an extra few days by spending a long weekend in the Tuscan sun at the beginning of October. I had a meeting in Siena so we started our long weekend trip in this beautiful medieval city, famed for its horse races, the Palio, which take place twice a year in July and August in the Piazza del Campo.
The city of Siena is set on three hills, surrounded by the Chianti countryside of vineyards and olive groves, and consists of seventeen districts, or contrades, with symbols including the she-wolf, the rhino (representing forest), the eagle, the unicorn, the caterpillar, the goose, the owl, the snail, the tortoise, the dragon, the giraffe, the porcupine, the tower, the ram, the wave, the shell and the panther. Each district enters a horse into the races, and the number of races won is often proudly painted on a wall somewhere. Each district also has a club, which is a social meeting place for the community and usually proudly displays the trophies won, a church, in which the horses are often blessed before the races, and a museum. If you walk through the districts, you will see the gates out of which the horses enter into the streets. One of the best things to do in Siena is to just wander around on the sloped streets, admiring the buildings and enjoying the atmosphere.
The city also has an amazing cathedral, Duomo di Siena, dedicated to the Assumption of Mary. The cathedral is beautiful inside and out, as it is made of pink, white and green-black marble, and inside is floored with beautiful mosaics and pillared with black-and-white-striped columns. The mosaics are covered all but two months of the year (usually September and October), and we were luck enough to be there when they were uncovered for viewing. Black and white are the colours of Siena, which is supposed to be linked to the black and white horses of the legendary founders of the city, Senius and Aschius, who were the sons of Remus, the brother of Romulus who founded Rome, and like Romulus and Remus are depicted in statues suckling a she-wolf. However it is thought that the original inhabitants of the hills of Siena were the Etruscans, a people of ancient Italy. The Etruscans had a wealthy and poweful civilization and their own unique language, but were gradually assimilated into the Roman empire.
Another beautiful church in Siena is the church of St Catherine. St Catherine of Siena is apparently the patron saint of Siena, of Italy and one of three patron saints of Europe, along with St Bridget of Sweden and St Teresa Benedicta of the Cross. Nearby the church you can see a convent at the site where St Catherine used to live.
The old medieval town centre of Siena is surrounded by 7km of fortified high walls and has a Gothic style originating from the 12 to the 15th centuries, with many Sienese arches present in the building style. Apparently Siena used to have many towers, but after being defeated by the Duchy of Florence which was allied to Spain, most of these towers were chopped off, with the only one remaining being the tall bell tower (Torre del Mangia) of the town hall (Palazzo Pubblico) in the central piazza (Piazza del Campo). Piazza del Campo is where the horse races take place, and you can see the ring around the central square which is prepared with sand for 10 days before the races start. Crowds watch from the middle or from the edges of the square. Despite all the preparations, the race itself only takes a minute or two. Another important building on the piazza is St Maria della Scala, which used to be a hospital but which is now a museum. Unfortunately we missed this sight, but it looks beautiful so we’ll have to go and visit it another time.
Another interesting sight is the Medici fortress (Fortezza), which was built by the powerful Medici family of Florence in 1560 after the Florentine conquest of Siena. It is now a public park, where you can walk along the ramparts, and inside is a museum and a winery (Enoteca Italiana) where you can enjoy tasting a large collection of Italian wines and local food. Siena is also home to one of Italy’s oldest universities, built in 1203, and is home to the oldest surviving bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena.
Tuscan countryside: Montepulciano and Maremma
There is a rail network connecting cities such as Florence and Siena, but to get around to some of the smaller towns and archaeological sites, it’s best to rent a car. We stayed at a lovely B&B outside the city walls of Siena, and from there it was easy to head into the Tuscan countryside. Soon we were among the rolling hills, medieval towns, cypress trees, vineyards and olive groves of Tuscany.
We headed for Montepulciano, and stopped randomly at a little town along the way, called Buonconvento. We were struck by the city walls of this lovely Tuscan town, and there was also a market there which we browsed through.
Afterwards we visited Montepulciano, a magnificent medieval town on a hill, with beautiful views all around. The red wines of the area are famous, and we stopped to taste some wine before buying a bottle of 2011 wine to drink later. I also popped into a local bakery and picked up two of my favourite Italian treats, panforte (a dense cake of fruit, nuts and candied peel) and soft almond cookies.
After a snack and some coffee, it was back to the car. Our plan was to visit some Etruscan archaeological sites before heading to the Terme (hot springs) at Saturnia. The scenery itself was well worth the drive and we passed by some hill towns we would have loved to stop and visit.
After driving the winding roads for a while, we arrived in the hills of Maremma, where the towns of Sovana and Sorano and Pitigliano are, in the area of the Via Cave, roads carved through the tufa by the Etruscans which linked settlements to the necropoli, where the Etruscan tombs were. First we stopped at a path near Sovana leading to a necropolis, from where we also had an amazing view of Pitigliano, built on a steep cliff above tunnels and caves carved into the tufa.
Then we headed to Sorano, which dates from the Etruscan era, and had lunch in the town. It’s a lovely place to wander around with a different style of buildings and cobbles, and we also met some friendly cats.
Next we visited the archaeological park to take a look at the Via Cave and the Etruscan tombs. The tombs are quite worn due to the nature of tufo, a porous volcano rock, but still well-preserved enough to give a glimpse into the life of the Etruscans living in the area. Because tufo is soft, it was carved away by inhabitants of the area over the ages to form cellars, tombs, houses and roads in the rock, and in this park you could see the tombs and the roads. It was amazing to walk down the passages carved by Etruscans of so long ago. Caves in the area were also inhabited during pre-Etruscan times.
After we left the Etruscan site it was already fairly late. We arrived to the Terme di Saturnia (thermal baths of Saturnia) quite late, but still got to admire the amazing clear blue warm waters and put our feet in before it started raining and we had to head back for the car. J didn’t have a bathing costume so we didn’t swim this time (it would have started raining anyway) but we’ll be back!
Since it was dark, we started heading back towards Siena. We stopped in Grosetto and happened upon a concert in the town cathedral, with beautiful choral singing. The cathedral had similar black and white striped columns to the cathedral in Siena and the town was surrounded by similar high walls. After the concert we had some delicious pasta. I tried pici, which I’ve never seen outside Italy – it’s like a thick spaghetti and here it was served with cheese and olive oil. Finally it was back to Siena to get some sleep before our next day of exploring.
San Gimignano and Firenze (Florence)
The next day we headed north to Florence, via San Gimignano, the “Town of fine towers”. This medieval town lies on a hilltop, surrounded by beautiful Tuscan countryside.
From there it was on to Firenze, or Florence as it’s called in English. Florence has some beautiful buildings, such as the Duomo with Giotto’s bell tower (one of my favourite buildings in Italy), as well as famous artworks in its museums, but in general it’s not my favourite city, since it’s quite overcrowded with tourists (even though we are two more!), the prices are a bit of a rip-off and some parts of the city centre smell like pee (too many late night parties?). Everyone has different opinions about it though, as I’ve heard from some people that it’s their favourite city in Italy. Perhaps I should go back there in the dead of winter. The nicest surprise in Florence was that we arrived on a day when there was free entry to the Medici Chapels. There was not much of a queue and the chapel inside was beautiful, so it’s well worth a visit. There are also several Michelangelo sculptures inside.
After our walk around Florence it was time to catch a train to Bologna, from where we would fly back to Berlin the next day. As Bologna is not in Tuscany, I’ll share our photos from this lovely university town in another post.