Siena is the warm heart of Italy. At least it's pleasant to think so.
What we crave from old Europe is manifest in this lovely town folded into the green fields of Tuscany.
The Palio with jockeys in
the colors of the Contrade.
Siena's narrow streets meander into airy piazzas like the Campo, renowned both for its architectural grandezza and the Palio, a colorful horse race staged there each summer since the Middle Ages. To stroll along the city walls is to be tempted into the hills beyond, undulating off to the horizon. Siena whispers to our desire for a measured rhythm we've lost in our own agitated society.
Alas, we often arrive in Tuscany hell-bent on a few days of sightseeing before heading on to Rome or Paris for another handful of photo ops. Then it’s winging off home again, resigned to return of the daily grind.
In Italy there's a movement afoot—spearheaded by regional travel boards—to modify this frenetic pace of modern travel. The idea is to expose visitors to the cadence of traditional Italian life in areas like Tuscany, Umbria, and the Veneto.
The Piazza del Campo
in the heart of Siena, Italy.
This trend incorporates several efforts: the "Slow Food" and "Slow City" movements; agricultural tourism; the proliferation of rural villa accommodations, etc. All have the goal of persuading travelers to linger--in a market place, a restaurant, a small town, along a country lane, at a farm family dinner table—in order to absorb the old Italian way of life.
Recently I visited Siena to experience Trekking Urbano, a program created by the local tourism authority which has caught on in a number of Italian towns. The idea is to eschew the quickie Cook's tour of architectural highlights in favor of a guided trek along less frequented pathways which expose one to the contours of everyday life.
Urban treks start from
the Piazza del Campo.
A former Siena Synagogue
along the trekking trail.
Apropos we explore a contrada, one of 17 precincts which define Sienese identity in this most neighborhood-oriented of towns. Each contrada has its own traditions, colors, register of membership, and stable of horses to be entered into Palio races under its aegis.
On this spring day we witness baptism and confirmation ceremonies. Each contradaiolo (local resident) is subject to two baptisms: one into the church, the second into the contrada. The ornate communal hall is festooned with tribal banners and depictions of previous Palios held down through the centuries. There's wine, music, and congratulatory hugs all around. Costumed young men parade through the streets of the Contrada dell'Oca (contrada of the goose) chanting and banging on ancient drums.
We wend our way through alleys, stopping at a former synagogue in the old Jewish ghetto and at churches with venerable ties to the various contrade. We visit the covered market, lifeblood of Sienese sustenance and its distinctive cuisine. Then off along the city walls to a medieval fortress which once represented independence of the Siena Republic, both from papal Rome and nearby Florence.
The awe inspiring Duomo
Beyond the city walls we wander pathways through nearby fields to examine the aqueduct system, deliverer of the abundant fresh water without which Siena Felix (happy Siena) could never have mounted its most enduring glories—the Palazzo Pubblico and the marbled 14th century Duomo.
A trek through Siena also means visiting purveyors of local prelibatezze (delicacies) in a variety of restaurants, wine bars, and pastry shops. The regional Chianti wines are famous worldwide. There is a local sweet called panforte, said to have aphrodisiac qualities. Not to be missed are crostini di milza, bread crusts spread with a pate of spleen, or malfatti (literally "badly formed"), a gnocchi made from ricotta and spinach usually topped by a creamy tomato sauce.
The hills surrounding the cathedral
lure trekkers onto Tuscany paths.
Tourist board publications offer a number of walking and biking itineraries into the countryside of Terre di Siena, ranging from tours of the Chianti vineyards to explorations of La Crete Senese (Sienese clay hills) which produce much of the agricultural bounty utilized in Sienese cuisine. Itineraries combining hiking, biking, train rides, and even travel on horseback have been laid out in a fistful of brochures that offer information about local inns, restaurants, and sightseeing.
My recommendation, based on delightful personal experience, would be to give Siena and its hinterland at least a 7-10 day run: two or three days in Siena itself; a similar time frame for a walk/bike/train excursion of the countryside (overnight at local inns); and another few days for exploring other nearby hill towns like San Gimingnano, Montepulciano, and Volterra.
Spend some "slow time" in Siena.
Siena afternoon from the Hotel Minerva.
With so much tramping about you must keep up your strength. Eat and drink to your heart's content at every opportunity. You've earned it. Always remember: Al tavolo non s’invecchia mai. At table, one never grows old.
A popular three-star lodging bet in Siena is Hotel Minerva, justly famed for its extraordinary views across the rooftops of the city. Reservations at www.albergominerva.it
For information about travel to Siena click on www.terresiena.it (for the environs) or www.comune.siena.it (for the city). For more on urban trekking in Siena and elsewhere in Italy go to www.trekkingurbano.info/index.html
Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine Europe Editor.