A while ago I posted a taster of my travels to Tuscany in Italy. I went to six places, Florence, Siena, San Gimignano, Pisa, Lucca and San Miniato. There is so much to talk about in each place. And I'm going to start with my base in Siena first, a medieval city and UNESCO World Heritage Site. I stayed here at my friend, Chris's place as he was working in town for a few years.
Piazza del Campo
Many European cities have some sort of plaza or square which is the focal point of the city. Siena is no different. Where it differs is the shape of piazza, like a shell shape and that it slopes towards one side. Siena is most famous for the Palio, a horse race that dates back to the medieval times and takes place at the Piazza del Campo twice a year. Ten horses take part in the race and they represent ten of the seventeen neighbourhoods in Siena, taking neighbourhood rivalry to the highest level every year. The riders compete on bare back horses, dressed in the traditional costume and colours that represent their ward. They race three laps around the piazza, with spectators in the center of the piazzo and lining the outside in front of the buildings. Those 70 seconds of the race will define the glory for one lucky ward for the year.
I'm told tickets are very hard to come by, though this wasn't a problem for me as I was here in November! Without seeing the Palio with my own eyes, I could still sort of imagine what an exiciting race it would be whilst standing in the piazza. This short clip gives a great overview of how Palio consumes Siena during the event, the exictment of the race and the devastation for those who lost.
Religion plays a big part in Europeans life, particularly in the medieval times, and the Siena Duomo is, in my opinion the most stunning structure in Siena. Works on this gothic style cathedral first started in the early 13th century but it seems there are records of a religious estblishment here from as early as a century before. You'll notice that the duomo is built of white marble and not bricks and stones like the other buildings in the city. This makes it stand out both in terms of appearance, and its status as the most important structure in the city.
Normally I always go inside a cathedral when I travel, not because I'm religious, but because it's rich in architect, history and culture of the city. I don't have photos of the interior of Siean Duomo, so I can't remember if photos aren't allowed, or if I didn't go in.... Anyway, the exterior is an eye feast, the intricate carvings, the different designs on each side of the facade, the gilded lantern on top of the dome, and of course the magnificent tower which can be seen miles away.
Torre del Mangia and Palazzo Pubblico
The Torre del Mangia, or the Tower of the Eater, and the Palazzo Pubblico, the Town Hall are also on the Piazza del Campo. Both are built mainly of bricks and blend in well with the rest of the city when you look at it from a distance. Consistency or boring? You decide.
The Palazzo Pubblico was built from 1297, and the tower from 1338. When the tower was first built, it was 88 meters tall, tall enough to beat its rival in Florence, but not taller than the Duomo tower. It was a respect to the fact that the state and the church are of equal standing. At that time, the Torre del Mangia was the tallest tower in Italy, but it didn't last forever. In the spirit of trying to outdo one another, Torre del Mangia continued to increase its height over the years. Now it stands at 112m and is the third tallest tower in Italy.
Monte dei Paschi di Siena
And finally the last place in Siena I want to take you to see is the MPS, or Bank of Siena in plain English. It traces it's root back to 1472 when it started as a mount of piety, a type of pawnbroker run as a charity in Europe back in those days. This allows it to make the claim as the oldest bank in the world. In 1624 it changed to its current form, which as a bank makes it some 34 years younger than the Berenberg Bank of Germany. So depending on how you look at it, the MPS is either the oldest or the second oldest bank in the world.
This building at Piazza Salimbeni, is the MPS headquarters. Actually I wasn't aware of the significance of this building until Chris told me about it. That just shows how important it is to have a local friend when you travel. It's these little things that makes the difference on what you learn about a city, or this world for that matter.
I don't know if you noticed, a lot of the photos I shared of Siena are at night time. Although I stayed at Siena as my base, I was out at the other places every day so the actual amount of time I spent inside Siena wasn't that much. Every evening when I got back, I'd walk around the city, or rather Chris would show me around after he finished work. You can read so much off internet, but there's nothing better than having some one on the ground to give you their first hand experience of a place.
Next time, I'll share with you one of the five other remaining places I visited during my Tuscany travel.