This past summer I traveled to Italy with my university to take a course abroad. I stayed in a residence in the Tuscan city of Siena, about an hour away from Florence. Siena is a medieval city that has tall buildings and narrow paved streets. During the completion of my course, I lived in Siena for five weeks while going on field trips to other Italian cities once every week and doing my own traveling on the weekends. While I think that all of Italy is spectacular, Siena definitely felt the most like home to me after living there for five weeks.
The course that I was studying was all about the Italian Renaissance. If you ask me, there’s no better place that I could have chosen to study the Renaissance in!
During my stay the weather was recorded to be the hottest that Italy’s been in over 150 years! Everyday we were experiencing temperatures around 40 degrees Celsius!
In the heart of the city is the Piazza del Campo, the main square in Siena. It’s home to the city’s town hall which has a tall tower called the “Mangia Tower.” Locals say that it’s bad luck to climb the tower before graduating from university because Siena’s university is one of the oldest in Europe (it was established in 1240).
Siena is an amazing city. It features many little shops and markets. The streets are busy but the people are friendly. There are less people here that speak English than in other more populated parts of Italy, but I didn’t really find myself struggling to communicate. I tried my best to learn as much Italian as I could while I was there. I practiced everyday when I ordered my Gelato.
One of the most beautiful features of Siena is the Duomo, a big cathedral located in the centre of the city. It has its own Piazza, or square, that surrounds it. It was built in the 1200’s and was intended to be the largest cathedral in Europe. In 1348 while the expansion of the cathedral was progressing steadily the Plague swept across Europe and the construction was stopped due to a lack of funding and manpower to complete the project.
You can see where the cathedral was being expanded before the plague struck. They never resumed the project, but according to the original plans of the Duomo it would have been larger St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Since Siena is located on the top of a hill, the views from my room were spectacular. I could see forever into the distance. It was absolutely breathtaking.
I got a really good understanding of the Tuscan countryside in Siena. I loved the feeling that I had when I was there and the culture is so much more laid back than what I’m used to in Toronto. Here in the big city everything is always “Go, go, go!” but in Italy you always feel like taking your time and enjoying every moment.
My favourite part about Siena was the food. I think the food here was my favourite compared to everywhere else I went to in Italy. The pasta here is absolutely delicious, no matter what you get! Here is a picture of my favourite truffle pasta.
The orange drink in the photo is called a “Spritz.” This is a drink that Italians have in the afternoon, around 3 pm, and is said to prepare your stomach for dinner. It’s really delicious, I’m going to try and find a recipe so I can make it at home!
The cost of things in Siena is significantly lower than in other areas in Italy that are considered to be more touristy (like Venice or Rome). I found it to be very affordable, especially when it came to food.
One of the biggest attractions of Siena is the Palio, a traditional medieval horse race. This event happens twice every summer, once in July and once in August. The city of Siena is divided up by neighbourhoods, and each neighbourhood has its own mascot and name. Where I was living during my stay was the Contrada della Chiocciola (which translates to the Snail District).
Leading up to the day of the race the Contradas take turns parading around the city playing drums and waving flags. The flag bearers are usually given choreography to perform and usually are dressed up in authentic medieval costumes. Citizens will wear flags bearing their Contrada’s mascot on them to show their support. The streets will also be decorated with the appropriate mascots for each Contrada. The Contradas will take turns hosting large parties for the whole city to attend leading up to the day of the race.
On the actual day of the race, everyone in the town gathers into the centre of the Piazza del Campo to watch. Those who are more wealthy can pay extra to reserve seats along the outside of the track. The horses race around the Piazza twice and then a winner is declared. The day consists of hours of parading before and after the race. Once a winner is declared the winning Contrada will parade through the city with drums and flags to celebrate their victory.
The people who come to watch the Palio are locked inside the gates within the ring of the horse track. Once you’re inside you really can’t get out.
The winners of the race that I attended was the Contrada della Selva, which is the “Forest District.”
Watching the Palio was an incredible experience and I am so glad that I got to be a part of it while I was there. I would definitely recommend trying to see the Palio if you will be in Tuscany during the summer time.
One of my favourite things to do in Siena was to just sit in the Piazza della Campo at night. When the sun goes down in the summer time, people go to the Campo to get dinner, drinks, or gelato and they simply sit on the ground in the middle of the square and talk to each other. The lights of this city at night are simply spectacular and one of the most beautiful things to see.
Siena is definitely a hidden gem in Tuscany and I am so grateful that I was able to call it my home for five weeks. It is so charming and welcoming, and I miss it so much. I would definitely recommend visiting Siena if you are planning on going to Tuscany. Though Siena is rather small compared to other cities, the way of life there is an experience like no other.