We all enjoyed Rome much more than we had anticipated. We stayed in the Trastevere neighborhood and found a local park that the kids insisted on visiting nearly all 5 days that we were there. The restaurants served delicious food which made us feel better about the slightly inflated prices. And the sites that we saw were truly remarkable and inspiring. We could have spent more time there but wanted to see more of Italy.
Our plan for the next week is to spend it in Tuscany. We will visit some of the famous towns like Pisa and Florence on day trips from the house we have rented in San Gimignano.
Before we arrived at the house, we stopped off at a Tuscan town that Tiffany had visited during an Italian vacation she took 18 years ago.
Siena is a very old city. Legend has it that the sons of Remus, twin brother to Romulus the founder of Rome, fled that city after their father’s murder and came to Siena to build a rival city-state. This hilltop village never became the cultural and military behemoth that Rome became but it did grow significantly during the middle ages.
Siena is composed of 17 contradas (neighborhoods) and 10 of these are selected to participate in a wild horse race called the Palio di Siena. The jockeys ride bareback wearing the colors of their contrada. The winner gets bragging rights over the other contradas so most races feature horse whips applied to opposing horses and jockeys. Anything goes to impede the rivals and push your way to the front.
The most interesting aspect to this race is probably not the horses (no pure breeds allowed), the jockeys (may or may not be from the contrada), or the length (about 6 furlongs). The most interesting aspect to this race is the track itself. It is held in a plaza in the city center. In fact, right in front of the City Hall.
The Piazza del Campo has served as a marketplace for centuries. It has also been used as a field for sport prior to getting paved. And for two days a year, it is transformed into a dirt track for horses to circle thrice at break-neck speeds for neighborhood honor and prestige.
Imagine 50 thousand screaming fans in the ‘infield’ of this plaza. It has been said that this is the most exciting 90 seconds in Italian sport. They have been running these Palios just like this since 1633!
Even though we didn’t get to see the Palio (be here on July 2 or August 16) we did spend time admiring the Piazza del Campo while enjoying lunch.
The other must-see attraction in Siena is the Duomo. This is a gothic style cathedral completed in 1348. It’s facade is ornamented with gargoyles, saints, and she-wolves. There are many stories told by the sculptures and reliefs along its faces. The Duomo also features a black, green and white marble tower which rises high atop this building which itself sits on high ground within a walled hilltop town.
Prior to the Bubonic Plague in the 14th century, Siena had the same population as Paris. Unfortunately the “Black Death” took a majority of the residents and left them unable to compete economically or militarily with nearby rival Florence. The small town has retained its charming narrow streets and storefronts.
We left Siena for our new homebase in San Gimignano in time to see the late afternoon sun sweep over the Tuscan valley. Expect more images like the following over the next few days. It’s quite lovely here.