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Siena: the medieval masterpiece on Stigliano’s doorstep

Posted by Jonathan Broom on 25 September 2018
Related property: Stigliano
Siena: the medieval masterpiece on Stigliano’s doorstep

Florence, or Siena? Siena, or Florence? Holidaymakers at Stigliano are spoilt for choice.

Really, of course, the answer is both. Florence, the birthplace of the Italian Renaissance, featured in a previous blog, is an easy 1½-hour train journey away. But Siena is so close there’s really no excuse not to visit this gem of a medieval hill town.

Hill city, really. At 54,000-odd the population of Siena is not large – Florence is 10 times as populous – but being home to a cathedral confers city status; and Siena’s is an absolute peach. More on that later.

Getting to Siena by car is easy. The SP99, SS223 and SR2 will take you straight into town – a journey of 21 kms, taking about half an hour. But be warned: first, the historic city centre is a limited traffic area (ZTL zone), and to enter this without a permit is to incur a hefty fine; and second, city-centre parking is expensive – as much as €35 a day. Much better to park at the railway station – to reach which, stay on the SS223, then take the SS674 and exit for ‘Siena Nord’. Parking there costs just €2 for a whole day. The station lies at the foot of the city, but if the climb to the top looks daunting, don’t be put off – you can get all the way up by escalator!

While its medieval charm is all its own, Siena doesn’t have the same multiplicity of attractions that Florence boasts – it is, after all, much smaller. But its two big draws are up there with the very best: the Cattedrale Metropolitana di Santa Maria Assunta and the Piazza del Campo, 150 metres apart. Starting with the cathedral:

Dominating the eponymous Piazza, the Duomo di Siena is one of the most dazzling examples of a Romanesque-Gothic church in all of Italy. A masterly confection on the outside – all black and white marble, and ornamented in that exuberant Italian-Catholic manner (the architects and builders did not hold back). You may judge the exterior to be enough; but you’d be missing a treat – in the best possible way, the interior is a riotous assault on the senses. Works by the likes of Donatello and Michelangelo vie for space with 13th-Century frescoes, all manner of statuary and a stunning ‘pavement’ whose 56 squares depict the sibyls, scenes from the Old Testament, allegories and virtues. There are treasures galore here; but if time is limited make sure to visit the Crypt, the Baptistery and the Piccolomini Library (below).

There are a number of different tickets, giving different levels of access to the cathedral and the various attractions around it, and ranging in price from €8 per adult (€2 for children aged between seven and 11; under-sevens are free), depending on the time of year you visit. An Acropoli + ‘access-all-areas’ pass will set you back €25 (€5 for children aged between seven and 11; under-sevens are free). The choice is yours, but further information can be found by clicking here.

From the Duomo, it’s a two-minute stroll to Il Campo.

With its scallop shape, its brick pavement, and all of the buildings facing onto it, the Piazza del Campo is truly unique. Standing in the centre of the square, you are left in no doubt that you are in the centre of things – not least because of the Palazzo Comunale (or Palazzo Pubblico, which is the city’s Town Hall) and the Torre del Mangia.

The imposing Palazzo Comunale, constructed of marble and brick, is home to the Civic Museum which includes numerous masterpieces by Sienese artists, including the beautiful Majesty by Simone Martini and a series of frescoes called Good and Bad Government by Ambrogio Lorenzetti.

At 87 metres tall, the Torre del Mangia offers one of the most beautiful views of the city. The ascent is quite something: more than 400 steep and narrow steps – but the 360° view that awaits is truly spectacular, and well worth the effort.

Combined tickets valid for both the Civic Museum and the Torre del Mangia cost €13.

Twice a year (on 2nd July and 16th August), the Piazza del Campo hosts the famous Palio di Siena, a bareback horse race around the outside of the square between 10 of the 17 contrade, or city wards, of which Siena is comprised. The Palio’s origins date back to 1590, and it is a proper spectacle – all pomp and pageantry. But the time-honoured rituals don’t entirely mask the very real rivalry that pertains between the contrade to this day. Every contrada wants to win; and low tactics, both before and during the race, are not unknown.

Most spectators gather in the centre of the square, from early morning; a day of enduring the ferocious Sienese summer heat is the price you pay to secure a prime viewing position. Seats on the balconies and in the windows of the buildings surrounding Il Campo can be had, for a price; but they’re normally snapped up months in advance.

But if you have the time and patience to wait, or the money and good fortune to snaffle a ticket, the Palio is a must-see, once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Though to my mind, if you’re lucky enough to visit Siena in the spring or autumn, when the weather is cooler and the attractions are cheaper, as with Florence, you’ll be seeing the city at its very best.

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Jonathan Broom

Jonathan Broom

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