It’s easy to fall in love with Siena. Charles Dickens once described it as “a bit of Venice, without the water”. I was smitten just from a photo! And once you’re under her Gothic spell, you’re hooked. But as I sat at Empoli station in the blazing Tuscan sun, case at my feet, half eaten panino in hand, waiting for my connection I began to ponder nervously whether reality could live up to my romantic image of the city. I was giddy with anticipation!
Legend has it Siena was founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the shewolf-fed twins Romulus and Remus. Whether that’s true or not the city’s origins are certainly ancient and littered with conquests and feudal conquerors having changed hands many times down the centuries. And whilst Siena’s medieval heyday is long behind it, the ancient walled city survives and prospers, offering visitors a glimpse back in time via the architecture and Senese traditions which still persist today.
Getting to Siena is pretty easy. Just hop on a train from Pisa airport or Florence’s Santa Maria Novella station. It costs around €10 and takes just over an hour and a half. And trust me, the time is well spent as the train chugs steadily through the sun-kissed languid Tuscan hills. Finally it pulls gently into Siena but if you’re expecting to arrive slap bang in the historic centre of the UNESCO world heritage site, like I was, you’ll get a bit of a surprise!
Siena train station is a little out of town. In fact it’s around 2km from the old historic centre, a result of 1930’s town planning no doubt, but thats no bad thing. Having only limited Italian when I first arrived I headed for the taxi rank instead of the bus stop to test my Italian on the poor soul parked at the front of the queue. I’m not entirely sure what I asked for but clearly it was incomprehensible as my driver’s face contorted in confusion and his hands spoke another language I didn’t yet understand! So I fell back on the international lingo of travel, producing my hotel booking confirmation with the holy grail printed upon it – the address in Italian! With a few silent gestures and a little prayer to the God of travel, we sped off!
Newtown Siena looks like many Italian city suburbs dotted with modern apartment blocks, their windows hooded against the sun. It gives little indication of what lies perched across the contours of the three hills above it. But gradually, as the taxi climbs through the modern streets, you begin to glimpse some of the 7km of medieval ramparts and then one of the many massive gates which transport travellers back in time.
As we passed under one of the dozen stone portals which pierce the walls, past armour-plated, wooden doors, we transitioned from the 21st century back to medieval times, from tarmac to cobbles, concrete to stone and light to shade. The taxi wound its way through the maze of narrow streets and alleyways navigating an insane one-way system that even the locals struggle with. Every street seemed darker than the last as the sun struggled to penetrate 5 or 6 storeys down between the medieval palazzi and hotels towards the core of the city. Redbrick and marble palazzi which once housed the first democratic citizens of the Senese republic and even some of the world’s first bankers, huddle together along the winding streets. It’s an impressive feat of medieval construction.
But as we delved deeper into the shaded heart of the city nothing had prepared me for the moment we turned the final razor sharp corner to sweep out of the darknesss into the glorious sun-drenched magnificence of the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. It was so much more than I’d ever anticipated from the photos. Grand. Beautiful. Cavernous. Filled with children playing, adults chatting and tourists soaking up the last of the sun’s rays before it sank back down the hill behind dome of the Duomo. And in that instant as the hairs on the back of my arms stood to attention I felt I was home and grinned ecstatically at the taxi driver as I relished the prospect of exploring this wonderful city. No doubt he thought I was mad!
Will Self apparently once described the Palazzo Pubblico, or town hall, in Piazza del Campo as “the finest example of 14th century vernacular architecture in the known world” in The Independent. All I know is that the Piazza di Campo, encircled by the town hall and numerous grand palazzi and restaurants, is one of the most beautiful public spaces I have ever seen! Its easy to fall in love with Siena, with the maze of streets, with the liquorice all sort Duomo, but most of all with the Campo, which bewitches. This was just the beginning of my love affair with the hilltop city that I’d first seen in a photo. And it’s one I hope never ends.