For many years, Montepulciano and Siena were bitter enemies. This animosity has subsided, and today the two towns are rivals only for the affection of tourists. In this battle, the better known and larger Siena has the advantage. Built on a hillside around a central campo, Siena is one of the major attractions on the Tuscany tourist trail.
We've decided to pay a visit to Siena today. Mary and I stayed there for a few days the first time we ever came to Italy, eight years ago. At the time we were both very impressed with the town, but we had little to compare it with. Having seen quite a bit of Italy in the interim, we thought it would be worth a second visit to see how well it held up.
Getting to Siena is not as easy as it might have been. Montepulciano is quite a distance from the nearest train station, so it is much easier to take a bus from the town. Mary's guidebook claimed that it is only a thirty minute drive from Montepulciano. This may be true in an automobile; the bus ride, however, is significantly longer. The bus from Montepulciano to Siena stops at every town between the two, which lengthens the time to nearly two hours. The bus rolls through the Tuscan countryside; the hills stand in long plowed contours, undulating like a herd of mud-bathed elephants. As we wind and weave down the road, I worry about the girls becoming sick, but they manage to hold themselves together.
The bus deposits us at the Siena train station and we find another bus to carry us up the hill to the center of town. There we join the crowds, freshly disgorged from the tour buses, who are walking down Siena's radiate streets to the campo. Tourists overwhelm the city during the day, packing the main streets and filling the restaurants around the campo. When we stayed here we found that the crowds usually dispersed around 5:00 PM and the town grew very quiet and pleasant. Unfortunately, we do not have the luxury of waiting for evening today, so we dive right in with the rest of the tourists.
The campo, Siena's central square, is one of the city's great attractions. Resting at the heart of the city, the campo is like a great drawing room, a wonderful place to sit in a sidewalk cafe, have a drink, and watch the world stroll past. It is shaped like a baseball field, with a great brick bell tower standing out behind second base. During the annual Palio, Siena's various neighborhoods compete with one another by holding a horse race around the perimeter of the campo. It is supposed to be quite a sight, and it draws immense crowds to watch the spectacle.
We don't linger in the campo very long; Mary is keen to visit the Duomo again, which she has long considered one of her favorite churches in the world. The Duomo is up the hill from the campo (behind first base), and its alternating rows of white and black marble make it appear as if it has been built of Legos. Inside it is quite impressive, with perhaps its most extraordinary feature being the marble tiles on the floor which have been arranged to depict saints and scenes from the Bible. It is an impressive church, although not my favorite (Brompton Oratory in London probably holds that honor, or the Jesuit church in Rome). I find it a little dark and crowded, although the row of carved Popes' heads looking down over the center aisle is a grand touch.
After the Duomo, we split into two teams: photographers and souvenir shoppers. No extra points for guessing that I end up in a one man team. The girls head off while I poke around in the alleys behind the campo. My chief discovery is a small Trattoria which is far enough off the main tourist route to offer wonderful food at reasonable prices. We eat there, and I enjoy a dish of spaghetti with a wild boar sauce. Marvelous.
Well fed and satiated, we split up again. I explore the neighborhoods behind the campo, this time in the direction of third base. I find the Jewish synagogue and a church—Santa Maria dei Servi—which, in contrast with the Duomo, is empty. Our time in Siena is nearly done. We meet in the Campo and head for St Catherine's church, our last stop for the day.
Catherine of Siena is probably the most famous of all the Tuscan saints. A Third Order Dominican, mystic, and theologian, she died at the age of 33. After her death, her body was divided into pieces (relics), many of which went to Rome. Siena received Catherine's head and one of her fingers. Both relics are found in her church. Her finger is mounted and displayed in a glass case, while Catherine's head, draped in the scarf of a nun, peers out at visitors from an altar erected to the saint. She is looking pretty good for a woman who is approaching a thousand years old. Her skin stretches tightly over her skull, and although the church would undoubtedly maintain that she is “incorrupt,” it is unlikely that she is looking as fresh and radiant as she did on her deathbed. For people who lack exposure to the cult of saints and relics (or staunch Protestants), a first encounter with Catherine's head can be a little unsettling. I watch as several visitors approach the altar, then blanch as they realize what they are seeing.
I think Siena holds up well to the rosy glow that surrounds it in my memory. It is a beautiful town, a fact well-attested by the number of visitors it draws every year. For us, however, it is time to catch our bus back to Montepulciano.