A day trip to Siena
We began our morning with a walk to one of the bus stations in Florence.
NOTE: There are two bus stations and a train station, which are all relatively close to one another. Pay attention to avoid going to the wrong place.
Despite being tired, the bus ride was tolerable; we circled around Florence and made out way to Siena passing many beautiful Villas in the Tuscan countryside along the way. When we were dropped off in Siena, we were met by a man named Mike who is an administrator for a group called Siena Italian Studies (SIS).
SIS is a program that is based out of Italy where they fully immerse students into Italian studies and culture. Classes begin in English and gradually introduce Italian language, instruction in Italian, and assignments completed in Italian. Students are provided homestays with Italian families that speak little or no English and essentially force the student to try and speak the Italian Language. This program is one of very few that fosters Italian instruction, but if a student really wants to learn the language, this is one program to consider.
Siena despite being a famous city really doesn’t have a “touristy” feel to it like other Italian cities such as Rome and Florence. You will find very few people here speak English, shopkeepers may speak a few words, but again, more effort on your part is necessary but will be worth it.
Siena is famous for a few reasons. Despite being a Tuscan city, the buildings in Siena do not have the same construction style and provides a different look than most other Tuscan cities. Siena is also home to the Palio, which is a series of two horse races where the racers ride bareback on July 2 and Aug. 16. The racers are chosen from a pool of 17 contrades (neighborhoods). Of the 17 contrades, there are 10 who actually participate in the race.
The pool of 10 consists of the 7 contrades that did not participate in the previous Palio and three that are chosen by lot. Each contrade has its own colors, mascot and flag. You will find neighborhoods such as water, giraffe, snail, owl, dragon, and so on. You will know when you have entered one contrade from another because the contrades display their flags and colors proudly. You’ll know whose turf you’re on in Sienna.
The Palio race lasts about two minutes but the celebration afterwards can last for weeks. The two minutes are intense as racers fall off the horses as they run through the windy streets of Siena. The winner of the Palio receives a piece of art for their contrade. Each contrade has a museum for the Palio. However, these contrade museums are for the Italian people, not tourists and you have to know someone to get in.
A classmate and I were walking, and we were in the Toro (elephant) contrade when we passed the Toro Men’s club. These were like the neighborhood elders and power elite all socializing and playing cards. We were feeling courageous so we approached one of the men and introduced ourselves (In Italian) and asked some question about the contrade. He spoke no English, but we still had a conversation and my classmate and I could understand most of what he was saying. It was really cool, he talked about the history of the Palio and that the Toro contrade was not racing this year.
This was really cool, talking to a local and getting some local history. Being in an area for a while will build up one’s confidence but I suggest you extend that olive branch and see what happens. Often, people will be nice and talk to you.
The Il Campo is the public square in Siena that is unique because the square is actually round and it slopes to allow water runoff to drain more easily. All day you can see people laying down in this square. There is a nice fountain where you can top off your water bottle. Off on of the side streets in the Il Camps is The Torture Museum. For a few Euros, you can see a series of Medieval “machines” used by the government and the church as a means to interrogate and punish people. This museum leans towards the macabre but is really educational and if you can stomach the sites, there is a lot to learn. Downstairs is where the really gruesome machines are such as gallows, chopping blocks, and the rack are kept.
For the food lovers out there, Siena is famous for its pasta called pici. It is like thick spaghetti that is very floury. At a restaurant overlooking the Siena valley, I had the pici in a light tomato sauce with fried un-smoked bacon — DELICIOUS! Siena also has a decent amount of coffee bars that sell food to take out and you can continue your exploration of the city.
NOTE: The concept of “to go,” doesn’t really exist in Italy. If you order coffee and ask for it to go, you are probably going to get a strange look. Most coffee bars don’t even have takeout cups. This is another cultural lesson to learn.
As you continue to immerse yourself in the culture, you will adjust to the way of life there, or you will find ways to satisfy your personal needs. The paninis at many bars have Tuscan salami in them, it tastes very much like sausage and will usually accompany mozzarella and tomatoes on the sandwich. Everything is fresh and delicious! Food is a real art in Italy and the shopkeepers take their craft seriously. It doesn’t matter if you’re at an elegant restaurant that serves a seven-course meal or a bar to get a quick sandwich.
A testament to how good the food is — it’s a challenge to get me to eat a tomato in The States, in Italy, not only have I been eating them, but they are really good; especially when paired with mozzarella.
Siena is a valley city meaning the center of the city is literally in the middle of a valley. The side streets extend outward and upward. Be prepared to do a fair amount of hiking in Siena. One set of stairs were long, winding, and very wide — so each step up required about three steps to reach the next step up. It’s all worth it though to see the views the city offers.
If you need a little extra motivation, there’s usually a gelato shop at the top. We stopped in one that was perfect. I had gelato with cantaloupe, wild berry, and Nutella. AMAZING! The chocolate-hazelnutty goodness of the Nutella mixed with the tartness of the wild berry and the cool sweet deliciousness of the cantaloupe was soul healing! I was also able to get an iced cold coffee, which on a hot day is a refreshing pick-me-up.
The last thing we did before departing back to Florence was Siena’s duomo. This duomo is not anywhere near as large as the one in Florence, but it is green, and the façade of the cathedral is outlined in white, pink, and green marble which is all found in the Tuscan region. You can pay to tour the cathedral and from the top you can get a great view. However, you can save a few Euros and hike up a hilly street and get just as picturesque of a view.
After about nine hours we were ready for the ride back home and to rest up for the next day. We only have two days left in Florence and will then be heading to Geneva, Switzerland passing through Bologna and Milan. The six-hour train ride will be a nice break and allow us to recharge and also give some great views of the Tuscan countryside. That however is two days away and while I am in Florence, there are still a few things to see and do before saying this visit is complete.
— Ryan Geiger, graduate student