Siena hardly needs an introduction. It is one of Italy's great art cities and a gem of central Italy. It enjoys a nearly perfect position for tourism, smack in the heart of Tuscany, the most beloved region in the country, and lies between Florence and Arezzo, the two celebrated cities of the Renaissance. It also occupies a piece of picturesque landscape amidst the rolling hills and vine-lined valleys of Tuscany's storybook terrain.
According to legend, Siena was founded by the Senio, the son of Remus, legendary founder of Rome with his twin brother, Romulus. Statues of the she-wolf suckling the twins can be found just as frequently around Siena as in Rome. Remus's other son, Ascanio, founded the nearby town of Asciano. While lore lingers, the it's historically known that the area was occupied by the Etruscans and then the Romans, though it didn't prosper like other Roman cities, being off the main transportation arteries. It came into its own in the Middle Ages as a city-state with banking and wool trading bringing status and prosperity. Siena had its own constitution as early as 1179.
Its rivalry with Florence also spawned artistic and architectural competition, which in turn influenced the art, architecture and town planning of other cities in Italy and abroad.It's univeristy, founded in 1240, held prestigious schools of law and medicine, and continues to be among the best of Italy's advanced centers of learning. It earned the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation for its unique and unified Medieval Gothic appearance.
The historic city is a delight to wander with narrow lanes winding among the beautiful buildings and opening into piazzas. The distinctive Duomo is a high Gothic cathedral whose front seems to be made of marble frosting. The structure was constructed with black and white striped marble, the symbolic colors of Siena. It is paved with incredible marble inlay floors that tell artistic stories in mosaic. Masterpieces by Pisano, Donatello, Bernini and others await. More works are on display in the accompanying museum, the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. A high, sinewey staircase leads to a walkway with a gorgeous view. A highlight of the cathedral is the library built by the powerful Piccolomini family with sumptiously detailed frescoes by Pinturicchio and Raphael. A combo ticket gives you access to the Cathedral, the baptistry, the crypt, and the museum at a low price and is good for three days.
The city's main piazza is the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo (known simply as "il Campo" to the locals), a sloping open-air amphitheatre where the drama of daily life is played out among the residents, visitors and sidewalk cafes. It's a beautiful scene, with the dignified Palazzo del Pubblico as its focal point. Built between 1297 - 1310, it is still the civic seat of Siena and curves to follow the line of the piazza. Nearly every room is frescoed, the most famous being the Sala della Pace (Hall of Peace) with Lorenzetti's glorious Allegory of Good and Bad Government as a reminder to all generations. The attached bell tower was the tallest in Italy when it was built, a deliberate act to triumph over Florence. It still rings out the time for all to hear. If you are in good shape, you can climb to the top and enjoy the sweeping panoramas over the city and the surrounding countryside.
The Sanctuary of Santa Caterina is in the house where the revered saint lived; it's an airy Baroque church with pastel frescoes and the tomb of St. Catherine. Toward the edge of the centro storico is the Fortezza Medicea, a fortress with bastions and walls with walkways atop thembuilt by Cosimo de Medici. It now hosts an enoteca (wine bar) and jazz evenings.
One of Siena's most famous attractions isn't a monument, it's a festival! The Palio di Siena is a world renowned horse race played out in the piazza, pitting the neighborhoods of the town (known as contradas) against each other in a very heated battle for bragging rights and the coveted Palio, a banner which they will display proudly until the next edition rolls around. James Bond fans will recognize the scenes of the Palio and Campo played out in the film, Quantum of Solace.
The other main attraction is the historic center itself; stroll the streets, pop into the artisan shops, enjoy a cappuccino or a glass of wine at an outdoor table and soak in the ambiance of this unique place. And don't forget to sample the Tuscan fare at one of the many excellent restaurants; you'll not go hungry here! Of course, a glass of Chianti Classico is a must while dining in central Tuscany!
One day isn't enough to enjoy the splendor of Siena, but you'll not want to miss the other towns in the area. It's right in Chianti country with its perfect hilltop villages overlooked by miles of vines; the towns of Monteriggioni, Monalcino and Montepulciano are in reach, along with Arezzo, San Gimignano, and of course Florence, making it truly at the heart of Tuscany.
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