Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Tuscan Trails: Siena and San Gimignano

A photograph of one of the previous Il Palio in Siena
Our first full day in Tuscany began with a tour of Siena, a beautiful medieval town best known for the Il Palio, or the traditional horse race.

At the centre of Campo Square, which isn't really square but like a nine-section shell that fans out, and isn't flat either; people in the middle are on much lower ground than those on the edge.

Il Palio happens every July 2 and August 16. While the town has about 52,000 people, it is divided into 17 districts, or contradas. These contradas have their own flags and around the time of Il Palio, there are fierce rivalries between the districts.

Siena's Campo Square that is actually fan-shaped
People are born into the contrada -- you cannot buy property and instantly become a member. And each contrada is represented by a flag that features a different animal.

Each contrada wants their horse to win but there is only enough room for 10 horses in the race and so there is a lottery. Up until the race, hijinks can happen from kidnapping the jockey to even trying to steal the horse, or make it drink lots of water just before so it will be too heavy to run fast.

In the race, the jockeys ride bareback, but it's the horse that wins, not the rider, as he may fall off during the race, where the horses must run three times around the square. The winner receives a banner that is either painted or embroidered and of course bragging rights for the year.

The actual race only takes about 80 seconds, but there is lots of ceremony beforehand with the parade of flags of the contradas that dates back to the 13th century, and 30,000 spectators either standing in the middle of the square, or around the edge. Apparently tickets are already sold out for next year...

The Byzantine columns in the Siena Cathedral
Another famous aspect of Siena is St Catherine, whose skull and thumb are kept at Basilica of San Domenico, a cathedral built in the 12th century. She went to this church after she was born in 1347.

Catherine was a mystic, philosopher and theologian who had visions of Christ from a young age which inspired her to dedicate her life to God, but at the same time she was literate, which was very rare for women then.

There is a long story about why the then pope, Gregory XI was in Avignon, France, but she is best known for going there and persuading him to come back to Rome.

She died at the age of 33, somehow not being able to eat or drink, which resulted in a stroke and losing the use of her legs.

Since 1866 she was declared one of two patron saints of Italy, the other being St Francis of Assisi. In 1999 Pope John Paul II made her one of six patron saints of Europe, an event commemorated in Basilica di San Domenico.

After her death she was split up in parts, with her head and thumb remaining in Siena, and other parts in the Vatian and other places... kind of gruesome, but what can you do when everyone wants a piece of you?

Looking at the ornate ceiling in the cathedral's library
Siena is also known for having the oldest working bank in the world called Monte dei Paschi di Siena.

Another gorgeous place to visit here is Siena Cathedral. It took 150 years to build between 1215 to 1370, so the building has mixed architectural styles. It's already striking from the outside with the black and white marble from the Romanesque period, but inside is even more ornate.

You don't know where to look because there's 56 beautiful marble pictures on the floors, more black and white columns and arches inside inspired by the Byzantine period, and alcoves for religious figures. There's one for John the Baptist, with a bronze statue of him by Donatello.

The "twin towers" ahead in San Gimignano
Next door is a library housing large illuminated books that were hand copied and painted and the entire room is covered in fantastically detailed designs and religious images. But beware the angry female security guard who kept telling people "no flash!" and jabbed her finger at the sign. Don't mess with her!

Despite having built this cathedral, Siena wanted to build another one, but only the facade remains. Bubonic plague caused half the population to die off, and also the ground was sinking where they began construction right next to Siena Cathedral. Running out of money was perhaps the main reason the project died.

One more reason to visit Siena? It's considered the best city to live in in Italy for the past three years in a row.

A short drive from Siena is San Gimignano, another medieval town know for its towers. It originally had 72 towers that feature Gothic and Romanesque styles. The towers weren't just used as lookouts, but also for drying out textiles.

There's what's called the "twin towers", with one tower built by a wealthy family that is only slightly lower than the town tower. Apparently a few years ago a Japanese man offered the mayor of San Gimignano a blank cheque to buy the twin towers, but he politely said the were not for sale...

We climbed up to the top of one of the fortresses to have a great overall view of the area before going back down to the city square to sample what is considered the best gelato place in the world.

A bored beagle near the gelato shop
It's called Gelateria Dondoli which has been awarded this recognition in 2006-2007, and 2008-2009. There's a massive line in front, but it moves once people emerge happy with cones or cups filled with gelato.

There are many flavours to choose from, like tiramisu, Illy espresso coffee, caramel, sour cherry, saffron cream and nutella. I chose lemon and fig which was a delicious and light combination that wasn't sweet. We got a large waffle cone for 3 euros and a small spoon. Due to the heat we couldn't savour our gelato and had to eat it relatively quickly. While it was good, it wasn't amazing, but fun to try.

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