Siena is a Medieval city in Tuscany, some 70 km (43 mi) south of Florence. It is probably best known for a colourful horse race, Il Palio, conducted twice each year in the summer.
Siena was an Etruscan city in ancient times, but the era that is most evident in its architecture and remains a constant presence in the city’s character is the Middle Ages. Siena was a proud, wealthy, and warlike independent city-state during the Middle Ages and held off its rival Florence in several battles before finally going down to defeat. Medieval Sienese art (painting, sculpture, architecture, etc.) is unique and of great historical importance. Some of the most famous of the artists who lived and worked in Siena are the painters Duccio, Simone Martini, and Ambrogio and Pietro Lorenzetti and the sculptor Jacopo della Quercia.
Sienese people are fiercely proud of their city and their neighborhood (contrada). Each contrada has its own flag, emblem, contrada parish church and contrada house, which functions as a kind of neighborhood social club. The Palio, described below, is all about neighborhood pride and rivalry, and also constitutes the unbroken continuation of a Medieval tradition associated with religion, pageantry, trash-talking, bragging, and occasional violence. It is taken very seriously and is in no way a put-on for tourists; in fact, you are likely to feel less welcomed during the Palio than at any other time, and there isn’t the slightest doubt that Siena would run the Palio with great enthusiasm regardless of whether any visitors ever showed up.
That said, this is a city which depends and flourishes on tourism. Siena was a very poor little city for a few hundred years after its defeat, which is the main reason why its lovely Medieval buildings were never torn down and replaced with modern structures. In the 19th century tourists started coming. Nowadays, it is a requirement that new buildings within the city walls be built to maintain the city’s character and beauty, with the result that the streets are lined with many neo-Gothic buildings that blend in with the genuinely Gothic ones.
As a walled hill city, Siena’s centro storico is extremely picturesque, and from high towers, you can see the beautiful countryside that still largely surrounds the city. With a few notable exceptions (including the pretty yellow color of the sunflowers that are cultivated for oil for export), the Sienese countryside looks almost the same as it did in Medieval paintings. The Sienese countryside is part of the Chianti region, and therefore, it is easy to find good local wines in Sienese shops and to accompany your meals in ristoranti and trattorie. Sienese cuisine is delicious, and though some eateries are definitely better than others, it is difficult to find truly bad food in this city. In addition to being known internationally as a Medieval city that’s a great draw for tourists, Siena is known nationally as a university town, and there are also places for foreign visitors to stay for a few weeks and study Italian or other subjects.
Sienese specialties include:
- Panforte – a unique kind of dense cake, made of honey, flour, almonds, candied fruits, a secret blend of spices, etc. Tipo Margherita is the classic, but several other types are made. Panforte is commercially manufactured only in Siena and neighboring Monteriggioni, its loyal ally in Medieval wars with Florence. The most famous brand of panforte is Sapori. You can buy panforte most cheaply in local supermarkets, but don’t miss a trip to Nannini on Banchi di Sopra (see above), a pleasant caffé where you can buy not only their panforte by weight but also many other types of unusual pastries and so forth.
- Ricciarelli – small almond paste cakes.
- Palio Horse Race. A horse race like nowhere else, between the 17 contrade of Siena, is run in The Campo of Siena on July 2 and August 16. All Sienese are affiliated with one of the contrade, to which a typical Sienese feels loyal with a strength perhaps surpassed only by their loyalty to their family. Since the 11th century, the Sienese have conducted festivals every year where the contrade compete for renown (and in times gone by, actual political power) through contests such as flag throwing, horse racing and even fist fights. The fist fights no longer happen (a heavy police presence in the weeks prior to the contest sees to that), but the spirit of competition between contrade is still fierce. The race itself is in late evening but the whole day of the race is taken up with processions through the streets of the various contrade competing in the particular race (only ten can compete at any time for safety reasons).
- Classical concerts during the summer at the Accademia Musicale Chigiana, and at various locations in the city during the Chigiana International Festival.
- Siena Jazz Festival. During summer