Todays post is a continuation of my series documenting my Italian vacation. Siena was my most favourite town/ city on this vacation, so please pardon me if I lavish too many superlatives on this hill town. But the truth is that it deserves all these and more!
We had finished our visit to the Academia in Florence and ogled at David long enough. So we decided to skip town earlier and catch an earlier bus to Siena. We gathered our luggage from our Florence B & B and walked to the bus station after buying tickets at the tabachi. ( Tabachi – Cigarette/ lottery/ souvenir/ ticket store!) As luck would have it the earlier bus had been delayed for some reason and we just managed to board it before it left the station.
We settled into our seats as the bus zoomed down the autostrada (highway) that cut through the Tuscan landscape. Siena is an hour away by the rapid bus that we had managed to catch, and in no time we were in Siena. As we tried to locate our hotel in Siena using Google maps I realised that the warning given by the B & B owners was correct! Google maps location services didn’t work in the narrow winding lanes of Siena. Thankfully I had taken a screenshot of the directions sent by the kind B&B owners and we found the place with its help in no time.
I cannot praise our B&B in Siena enough. Antica residenza Cicogna is a small establishment right in the middle of the hill town. We had originally told the owners that we would reach after 2 and they had given us the pass key for the door. As it turned out we reached at 12 and were expecting the owners to say that our room wasn’t ready. Surprisingly not only was our room ready, the owners also offered us an alternate room saying that the room we had chosen might be a bit noisy at night! (They should come to Mumbai to know the meaning of noisy!) We declined the offer as the better half wanted the “Liberty” room with the 4 poster bed that we had originally booked. (In any case we slept very peacefully on both days!)
We kept our luggage and rushed off to explore the town. (As you must have observed by now we hardly spend any daytime in our room anywhere!) If you type Siena in Google images chances are that you will see photos of the huge square called the Piazza del Campo, so thats where we headed off to first. In Italy the biggest town square is dominated by a Cathedral, but in Siena its dominated by its huge city hall and bell tower. The gently sloping open space is made for lounging in the sun.(Quintessential Italy!)
We wanted to join the crowds lounging on the lawn like square (Its that clean!) but that would have to wait. First on the agenda was climbing the bell tower at the City Hall – The Torre di Mangia. It was open only for short hours in the off season and closes down if it rains, so this might be our only window to climb it. (We were right as it poured the next day) As we ascended the tower we were happy at the lack of crowds attempting the same! As we reached what we thought was the top I was disappointed, this was not so high! It turned out to be just the base of the tower at the top of the city hall. So we resumed our climb to the top. As we reached the top I realised that Rick Steves was spot on correct in calling this the best view in all of Italy! No grill, no crowds and clear skies made it an experience I will never forget. Wont describe the views and just let the photos do the talking.
We could have sit on top of the tower for a long time and we did! It was just spectacular and we didn’t want to rush it. So after we sat on the terrace for a long time a noisy group of kids joined us and that was our cue to leave!
At the bottom of the tower inside the city hall there is an open quadrangle which gives a different view of the tower. The city hall also has a museum, but I had promised the better half 2 relatively art free days. So we skipped it in favour of the most touristy thing to do in Siena!
Lunch at a cafe lining the square, average gnocchi and spaghetti with spectacular views to compensate. After satiating our hunger we did what the locals do, lounged for some time on the sloping floor! In my opinion this is as much a must-do thing on an Italian vacation as visiting the Vatican!
Next stop was the Siena Cathedral. The Siena Cathedral complex has a great ticketing system where you can buy what is called an Opa – Si pass. This entitles you to visit all the structures in the complex over a period of 3 days. ( Very convenient in case you get Cathedral sickness on a particular day! – There is a realistic chance of this happening if you visit Italy for a period of more than a week.)
We bought our passes and started with the cathedral itself. The back story of this place is that they wanted to outdo Florence and build a bigger cathedral. Sadly the plague had other ideas and they had to convert what was originally just the nave, into the cathedral itself and leave the rest incomplete. The incomplete part today forms the facciatone viewing gallery.
Make no mistake, todays cathedral is not minuscule by any standards! The beautiful facade with statues and gilded mosaics, flanked by pillars with the symbol of Siena – the Wolf is beautiful in its own right.
As you enter the Cathedral and realise how huge it is, it makes you wonder what the originally planned cathedral would have looked like! If it had been built then that would have left Michelangelo and co the unenviable task of making St Peters even bigger! I was disappointed that the floor mosaics were under restoration. That aside, the striped marble interiors with flags of all the contradas (neighbourhoods) at the bottom and busts of all the popes on top, lining the way to the altar looks spectacular. I am really glad that I got my Tokina ultra wide lens before this trip, all the churches and beautiful views made it worth its weight in gold!!
The Dome is topped by Bernini’s superb gilded lantern and decorated by stars and paintings meant to look like statues, another example of Renaissance innovation!
The cathedral also hosts two treasure troves of art (so I cheated a bit when I said art free days!) the Chigi Chapel with Bernini sculptures and the frescoed frenzy that is the Piccolomini library. The Chigi chapel is the most recent addition of this cathedral and is considered lucky by the Sienese who give offerings to their mascot Mother Mary here.
The Piccolomini Library is to be seen to be believed. Old choir books in cases at the bottom and from the point the cabinet that hold these books end, the frescoes begin! All walls and ceiling painted in superb detail & vivid colour describing the life of Piccolomini /.Pope Pius II the most successful Sienese. The detail in this frescoes is comparable to the miniature art of Rajasthan but on a much bigger scale.
It was an awe inspiring sight, you had to marvel at the dedication of these Renaissance painters to put in such detail into every inch of the frescoes. Me and my camera had a blast, sadly I can only share a few images here due to space constraints! As we left the cathedral, we decided to leave the other cathedral sights for another day and just walk around Siena aimlessly.
It was great just walking around this wonderful town without any particular sight to rush to. As we reached the ends of the hill town we reached a huge Church, we checked on the map and realised we had reached San Domenico, another huge Gothic Church in Siena.
We quickly visited the interiors which are decorated by the flags and stained glass windows. The timbered roof and the stained glass windows gave the church a simple and elegant look.
We then started our way back to the B&B and picked up a meat laden panini for me and a pizza for the better half to have as dinner. We would be back out again after some rest and dinner to witness the magic of Siena at night.
But that is topic for another post, another day. I want to praise Siena some more and I have exceeded my quota of superlatives for one post. So till the next one,