Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers one of Italy's best medieval city experience. Red-brick lanes tumbling every which way, the town is an architectural time warp, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.
Five hundred years ago, Italy was the center of humanism. Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe's largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by her Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater for six centuries.
Siena's loss became our sightseeing gain, because its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic-era identity, most notably its great, gorgeous central piazza — the Campo. People hang out as if at the beach at this tilted shell-shaped "square" of red brick.
Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but the Campo gathers around Siena's city hall, symbol of rational government, and a 330-foot municipal tower (open for climbers). Nowadays, the city hall tends a museum collection of beautiful paintings. The 14th-century town council met here in the Sala della Pace ("Room of Peace") under instructive frescoes reminding them of the effects of bad and good government: One fresco shows a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny; the other fresco depicts a utopian republic, blissfully at peace.
If the Campo is the heart of Siena, the Duomo (or cathedral) is its soul. Sitting atop Siena's highest point and visible for miles around, the white and dark-green striped church is as over-the-top as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it's lavished with statues and mosaics. The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter.
Great art, including Michelangelo statues and Bernini sculptures, fills the church interior. Nicola Pisano carved the wonderful marble pulpit in 1268. It's crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling — get up close to study the scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.
Hiding between the Duomo and the Campo are intriguing back streets, lined with colorful flags and studded with iron rings for tethering horses. Those flags represent the city's neighborhood associations (or contrade), whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio, a wild bareback horse race around the Campo (held July 2 and Aug. 16 every year).
Because Siena's steep lanes go in anything but a straight line, it's easy to get lost — but there's no rush to get found. As you wander, you'll be tempted by Sienese specialties in the shops along the way: gourmet pasta, vintage Chianti, boar prosciutto, extra virgin olive oil, and panforte.
In six hundred years, not much has changed. Life in Siena is good.
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Tony Moglia's grandparents immigrated from Italy in the early 1900's. He's a dual citizen who has traveled extensively throughout Italy for 40 years. He's happily married to a vibrant dancer who together have two children and three grandchildren. Tony has dreamed of Villas of Italy since his first trip to Italy, and now he shares his dream with you.