Friday, March 4, 2011

Travels in Italia - Siena

Our final stop on the Italy tour was Siena, and what a finale! We had a rough start with a windy, bus ride through foggy Tuscany that left both of us feeling a little carsick. When we finally arrived in Siena, we set off for our hotel, this one being the only hotel for which we didn't have a good map of the city or clear directions. An interesting fact about Siena: it is hilly. Very, very hilly. At this point, I'd done almost all of my Christmas shopping and about half of my birthday shopping for the rest of the year, so traveling light was a distant memory. After a long slog up and down hills, backtracking about six times, and passing a breathtakingly beautiful Duomo, we reached our gorgeous hotel, Il Chiostro del Carmine, located in what was originally a 14th century Carmelite monastery. Entering into the courtyard of our hotel wiped away all the negatives from our Volterra hotel and exhausting walk to the hotel. Peaceful and beautiful...we were back on our hotel jackpot streak.

After a little rest, we hit the town, or at least Il Campo, Siena's main piazza. I'd visited Siena in 2003 and remembered only one thing about the entire city - Il Campo. It's a huge, sloping, circle, anchored at the bottom by the City Hall and it's huge tower (over 300 ft) on one side. I love Rick Steves' description of the Il Campo colors in his Florence & Tuscany 2011 guidebook: "The square and the buildings are the color of the soil upon which they stand...a color known to Crayola-users and other artists as 'Burnt Siena.'" The setting sun hits those colors and cause the piazza to turn a glowing pink, giving evidence to the reason artists flock to Tuscany. In need of a little refresher, we headed to Il Palio for cocktail hour and sat at the window staring out at this beautiful town square. We only left when a man sat down outside and caught us staring at his luscious, pink martini. Apparently, he mistook the lust in our eyes as aimed at him, so in order to avoid an awkward moment, we quickly paid our bill and headed off to dinner.

The next day, our only full day in Siena, we walked through the car-free old town to the weekly market, held on Wednesdays. A little note here - markets in Italy can cover a wide range of items. Generally, the solo word "market," means clothing and household items, possibly a section with produce and flowers. Markets a big deal here to American spouses - huge deal, actually. I've only been to one so far. I have no good reason or excuse for this. The one I visited here in Naples was interesting, but filled with an awful lot of junk. K thought the same about the Siena market, but I was wowed by it. I absolutely loved it. We found a vendor selling mill ends for thread/yarn on cones (K and I both knit) for only 2euros per cone, there were children's wool coats, lined in silk, for only 15 euros, and so much more. But, we were only in Siena for a day, and we had several more things to see.

We needed some lunch and picked a place we passed while walking on a quiet street near our hotel. Seated next to an Australian couple living in Siena, we got to talking with them. As it turns out, by sheer luck, we'd landed in one of Siena's best restaurants. We enjoyed our lunch so much that we immediately made a reservation for dinner as well - the final dinner of our trip.

Feeling much better with a good lunch in us, we headed to Siena's wedding cake, 13th century, Duomo. It is spectacular. Black and white striped columns line the nave, inlaid marble designs cover the floor, there's a Michelangelo sculpture, a Bernini chapel (my favorite sculptor, and unfortunately, the chapel was closed for restoration...which means I will definitely be back), a carved, marble pulpit that is so intricate I can't even believe human hands created it, and best of all, a side library with vibrant frescoes, painted in the 1400s and never restored, yet still as bright as if they'd been painted last year. The Michelangelo statue adorns an alter that was supposed to be for the tomb of a cardinal. That cardinal became a pope, so the tomb was never used. Michelangelo was supposed to carve several of the altar's statues, but the "David" project came up, so he left Siena having only completed one statue. Visiting the side library with the vibrant frescoes, we took note of the strong warning to keep the line moving - then entered to find a completely empty room. where we could stare and take photos to our hearts' content. I love off-season Italy!
Duomo interior is as beautiful as it's exterior
Michelangelo's statue of Paul
The Piccolomini Library's amazing frescoes tell the story of Pope Pius II, who was from Siena
Just a small section of the marble pulpit, with relief panels telling the story of Christ's life; It was carved by Pisano in the 1200s.
One of the many marble, mosaic floor panels - this one shows Siena in the center with other, lesser cities surrounding her

With the plan to climb the tower of City Hall, we headed over there and disappointingly found it had closed just after lunch. So back we trekked to the Duomo, where there is a museum with a rooftop, panoramic view. We just made it in before they closed and got to run up for a marvelous view over the town and countryside. This gave the added bonus of being able to view the exhibit containing the original, stained glass window of the Duomo up close, as the museum has it in a beautiful, well-lit display.

And so, our trip came to a close. I can't think of a better city in which to end. K preferred Florence to Siena, but I really fell in love with Siena. Even in the off season, the streets were crowded at dusk, time for the passagiatta (typical, Italian walk around town at dusk), so the town was active enough to not feel creepy yet small enough to have a quiet vibe. I cannot wait to return.

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