Tuscany, Italy: The Medieval Town Of Siena
A short history of Tuscany, Italy - what to see, where to stay, what to eat, what to shop for, etc.
In the first century BC, the ancient Romans established a military base in the center of what is now Tuscany. Known then as Sena Julia, it grew into what is now the town of Siena, one of the most unique and enchanting cities in the world.
Much medieval and Gothic architecture is preserved in Siena. The remains of ancient walls still surround the city on two sides and it is truly a center of antiquity. In fact, without the tourist industry keeping the town alive, it would probably cease to exist.
Siena is a walking city, easily seen on foot in a weekend’s time. Il Campo, the town’s main square, is a good place to begin. Tourists gather here; the youth hostel crowd lounging on the pavement with backpacks and the more elite drinking coffee or tea at one of the cafes that line the square. At one end of Il Campo is the Palazzo Publico, or town hall. This Gothic palace dates to 1297 and houses a museum. The Duomo (dome) is a great Gothic church, completed in the 13th century. It is full of artwork, including a statue of John the Baptist by Donatello, and takes some time to go through.
Visitors to Siena in July and August can enjoy the international jazz fest that takes place there each year. The event that Siena is most famous for, however, is Il Palio, a spectacular hourse race around Il Campo on July 2 and August 16 each year. Ten different town districts compete against each other in a series of pageants for the palio, a silk banner. Parades and other activities give the event the feeling of Mardi Gras.
The best way to reach Siena from other cities, including Rome, is by bus. Buses arrive and depart from Piazza San Domenico, which is conveniently located. Accomodations in Siena often must be booked well in advance, especially if rooms are wanted in the months of July and August. Since this is very much a tourist destination, rooms are rather pricey. They tend to be small, and a ‘double,’ as in most of Europe, refers to a room with two twin beds. Restaurant fare tends to be limited to traditional Tuscan cuisine, which is noted for simple dishes that are flavored with fresh herbs. There is also a chain of small supermarkets, called Crai, where bread, cheese, and meat can be purchased for picnic type meals.
Siena is also known for shopping, most notably for small boutiques featuring Tuscan crafts. Ceramic pieces are especially beautiful, glazed in bright, Tuscan colors. Most shops will ship anywhere in the world and will guarantee safe delivery of ceramic pieces and glassware.
To take in the breathtaking landscapes of Tuscany, take a tour on the Treno Natura, a tourist train that operates on a line opened in the early 1800s. It runs from Siena in a circular route through Asciano and the Orcia Valley. Rolling clay hills, medieval farmhouses, fields of sunflowers and wheat, olive groves and wildflowers are some of the sights you can expect to see.