“Lose yourself wholly; and the more you lose, the more you will find.”
St Catherine of Siena, b. 1347
St Catherine was, I’m sure, probably speaking of losing yourself in religious ecstacy but her quote is just as applicable to a journey through her hometown. The more you lose yourself in the myriad of arterial streets and capillaric alleyways the more you will find the heart of the city and fall in love.
Having arrived late one sunny August afternoon, just as the city was preparing for the evening aperitif, my exploration didn’t start until the following day. As the hilltop city awoke I opened my shuttered window to terracotta rooftops shrouded in an early morning mountain mist and watery autumnal sun. I scoffed my continental breakfast of crusty local bread, cheese and salami with gusto and set out to uncover the city.
And there is only one way to see Siena – on foot, like a pilgrimage – as due to a blissfully forward-looking council the old city has been totally traffic free since 1966. In fact it was the first European city to ban traffic in its historic centre, a decision that Rome has only just taken to protect the Colosseum a full 47 years later.
Walking from my B&B to pick up the morning paper I passed bustling cafes serving espresso to the waiting suits, slowly waking shops opening their shutter-eyelids to the day and hotels having their nameplates Brasso’d proudly for the thousandth time. The sun began to filter down between the Gothic buildings, illuminating the maze of dark cobbled streets and narrow alleyways which turned off from the main thoroughfare. Some led to geranium-plantered courtyards. Some led to one of the many district churches within the city walls. While others still dropped steeply to another of the main arterial streets that radiate out from the heart of the city. It’s easy to get lost, but therein lies the joy of Siena as some of its jewels lie at the end of inconspicuous alleys.
The Campo is the spiritual and civic heart of the city. Shaped like a shell or cloak to commemorate the Virgin Mary, the gently sloping piazza was originally home to the market. The Council began buying up pieces of the field or “campo” in the 1290’s to form a communal focus for the city. The herring-bone paving followed later, divided into nine sections by white brick bands representing the old Government of Nine, not divisions of the city as sometimes thought. And in fact whilst the piazza is at the junction of several different districts, or contrade, crucially it is not part of any and therefore belongs to everyone.
As I stood at the mouth of one of the 11 entrances to the Campo my eyes danced around trying to take in the spectacle. The sun was rising gently behind the sky-scraping Torre del Mangia casting a long shadow across the piazza pointing towards the pink and terracotta palazzi huddled together facing the stately Palazzo Communale, or Town Hall. As the city gradually woke the piazza provided a window onto daily life. Children were walked to school by harassed parents. Visiting language students dawdled to college clutching a cornetto con crema (cream filled croissant). Workers trotted to their offices whilst dogs were walked before the hoardes of tourists arrived. As they always do. And a couple of vans scuttled round the perimeter track, one delivering supplies to the numerous restaurants, the other collecting yesterday’s detritus before the brief window for traffic slammed shut again.
Sitting outside one of the many cafes with my paper I watched as the morning shadow of the Torre tracked round the piazza like a massive sundial. The piazza is a great place to watch the world go by whether from a café or sitting on the brick paving to catch the sun’s rays. And as I sipped my fresh lemon juice with a spoonful of sugar ( try it, its very refreshing! ) the city came out from under the shadows for the day. Tourists gradually began to arrive. Small groups of friends, families or the ever present tour group seeped into the piazza mixed up with locals, polizia and the ubiquitous street sweeper keeping Siena in pristine condition. The piazza welcomes everyone.
Indeed the piazza has seen a lot of things in its long history. As the civic heart of the city is has hosted all manner of events including boxing, bullfights and executions as well as a visiting preachers. Today the piazza more typically hosts concerts, athletic events and the Mille Miglia vintage car race as well as fulfilling its original responsibility as a marketplace at Christmas with its Mercato del Campo packed full of local delicacies. But the event for which the Campo is world famous is the 350 year old Palio – a twice-yearly bareback horse race between 10 of the 17 city contrade or districts. It is a spectacular event, not to be missed, which deserves its own blog – click here for the history and background to the Palio.
Ultimately famous as one of Europe’s great medieval squares, Piazza del Campo is a joyful and enchanting place bustling with friends and families, young and old, locals and visitors and well worth a visit! The welcoming and friendly atmosphere is contagious and an essential part of any trip to Siena to meet up, immerse yourself in the Senese way of life and embrace all that life in Siena can offer. It is without question my favourite place in the city to pass an hour or two stretched out on the sun-warmed paving with a scrunched-up jumper under my head, a sun-crisped book in one hand and a juice-laden peach in the other whilst soaking up the Tuscan sun! Why don’t you add it to your list!