Desired Destination: Siena

24/01/2012 § 3 Comments

Church of San Domenico, Siena.

With all the dispatches a few weeks back from Florence for Pitti Immagine Uomo, my thoughts couldn’t help but turn to the time I spent studying abroad in the same city.  I loved living in Firenze, just off of Piazza Savonarola, in a tiny and charming apartment that originally served as servant’s quarters for a massive home owned by an old and aristocratic family.  As I looked at the countless photographs of the peacocking at the trade shows, I couldn’t help but look past the — well-dressed, of course — men, to the city that was peeking around the edges, and remember what living in Tuscany felt like.

My latest Desired Destination is one of my favorite places in Tuscany: the tiny, medieval town of Siena.  Approximately one hour south of Florence by car, Siena is noted for its sport, its fierce neighborhood loyalties, and its ancient history.  The town is divided into seventeen contrade, or wards, each with distinct boundaries and identifiable symbols and animal mascots.  While originally instated to provide military support and initially organized by trade, the contrade have evolved into extremely patriotic neighborhood associations: a resident of Siena will be baptized, married and eulogized, all within his or her contrade, and as you walk through the town, you’ll find the symbols prominently featured everywhere — as almost all contrade have declared rivals and allies, boundaries are very important.  These rivalries reach a fever pitch during the Palio, a biannual horse race that has been run in Siena since the 14th century.

The symbol of Siena: Romulus and Remus with the she-wolf
Actually, this is Senius and Aschius, sons of Remus. (Thanks to Simon for the correction!)
“Legend has it that the city was founded by Remus’ sons Senius and Aschius who stole the statue of the she-wolf from Apollo’s temple. Senius rode a black horse, Aschius a white steed. Those colours form the city’s heraldic colour scheme black and white while the city emblem is the same as Rome – the she-wolf and breast-feeding twins.” Via.
Palazzo Salimbeni, piazza Salimbeni.
Headquarters of the oldest bank in the world, Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena,
which has been in operation since 1472.
Piazza del Campo.

The Palio is run in Siena’s historic center, the Piazza del Campo.  Spectators fill the Piazza to the brim, with wealthier spectators enjoying the view from balconies above.  With layers of dirt packed over the stone, the horses and riders must complete three loops around the Piazza as fast as possible.  Complicating matters are the Piazza’s sharp turns and the fact that the jockeys must ride bareback —  injuries are frequent and it is not uncommon for horses to compete and win the race after discarding their graceless riders.  At each race, ten contrade are represented, alliances are tested and rampant bribery is rumored, in this ultimate competition for bragging rights and glory that is much unchanged since it was first run in the 14th century.

Spectators in the Piazza del Campo, 1947.  Photos by Walter Sanders for LIFE.

Each contrade brings their horse into their church for a pre-race blessing.

Horse racing not your thing?  Fear not.  Siena’s designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site assures that there is something for almost everyone, especially if you like art and churches.  There are the beautiful secular frescoes in the Palazzo Pubblico and the amazingly elaborate Duomo di Siena to see.  However, if you prefer to simply wander about the old winding streets, I wouldn’t argue.  And definitely bring home some of the beautiful and brightly painted ceramics Siena is known for — contrade specific, of course.

For accommodations, turn to Hotel Certosa di Maggiano.  Originally a Carthusian monastery built in 1394, the property changed hands and fell into disrepair until it was purchased in 1969 and eventually converted by Anna Grossi Recordati into the luxury hotel it is today.  Surrounded by six acres of countryside and boasting one of the best restaurants in the world, chef Paolo Lopriore’s Il Canto, the Hotel Certosa di Maggiano is a perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of Siena, conveniently located only one kilometer from the town.

Images via Hotel Certosa di Maggiano.

Currently closed for the winter, this darling hotel is set to reopen on March 16.

Perhaps I should book a room for when Pitti rolls around again in June…

Hotel Certosa di Maggiano
Strada di Certosa, 82
53100 Sienna Siena, Italy
0577 288 180
~*~
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§ 3 Responses to Desired Destination: Siena

  • You got some fabulous photos of Siena here. It is a very beautiful place, I wanted to visit when I was last in Italy but sadly it was too far for us to travel to. The horse race is kinda crazy but hey every country has it’s little foibles. I love the piazza photos here, you could spend a long time people watching in a place like this. Can I go with you please?!

    http://www.styleonthecouch.com

  • Simon says:

    When I was studying abroad in Siena, I stayed about a kilometer and a half down the road from Certosa di Maggiano with a family on via Certosa. Wonderful article. Living there was a really life-changing experience. Just one correction. The she wolf twins are not Romulus and Remus, they are Senius and Aschius, Remus’s sons. Their childhood story is very similar to that of Romulus and Remus. In Senese lore, Senius and Aschius discovered Siena after having stolen the wolf statue from the temple of Apollo.

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