Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Team Onda

As well as its cathedral, Siena is famous for the Palio horse race, which takes place twice per year in July and August. The race comprises three laps of the famous (and quite small for a horse race, it seemed to me) Piazza del Campo, and usually lasts around 90 seconds.

The Palazzo Pubblico with the Torre del Mangia
The square is a popular place to hang out, day and night

I wasn't particularly upset to miss out on seeing the Palio - I'm sure it's fun, but it also sounds like a bit of an overcrowded nightmare. What I didn't realise though, was that we still managed to turn up on a bit of a special weekend for Siena, or at least for one part of the city.

The Palio is disputed between the different districts, or contrade, of the city. There are 17, with pretty cool names and emblems - eagle, caterpillar, snail, owl, dragon, giraffe, porcupine, unicorn, wolf, ram, nicchio (whatever that is?), goose, panther, forest, tower, turtle and wave. We happened to be staying in the wave, or Onda district. And it just so happened that Onda were victorious in the 2017 palio, and they were celebrating their victory the weekend we were there, with the streets liberally festooned with their dolphin symbol. Although we saw some signs of the other contrade, they weren't nearly as visible as Onda, so I'm not sure whether they went over the top to mark the victory or whether they just have more Onda pride year-round. Either way, we are now Team Onda 4 lyfe.

It's pretty cool to see a tradition like this, with medieval origins, still going and still such a part of people's identities. We saw different city districts with names and symbols in other parts of Italy too, but it seems no-one takes them quite as seriously as the Sienese!

A dolphin Onda fountain
Friday night celebrations in Onda town
Onda torches and flags leading in to the Piazza del Campo

Another piggy friend

A faithful dog beneath the bough, a glass of wine and thou 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

OPA Siena style

There is quite a confusing array of ticket options to visit the duomo. We went for the OPA Si pass + Gates of Heaven, which includes the roof tour, cathedral, Piccolomini library, baptistery, crypt, museum and panoramic view. I was slightly miffed that the duomo and library and museum and panoramic view are not actually ticketed separately, so the joint ticket doesn't really include 7 separate sights, but that's just me being petty really.

The Piccolomini library is a small but fabulous annex to the cathedral, featuring an amazing ceiling and Pinturicchio frescoes of the life of Pope Pius II (born Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini).

There was a really clever use of the real architectural space, such as these corner frescoes joined by the decoration so they almost look like they're on one flat wall

The figure with the red pants is reputedly a young Raphael, with the fresco's painter Pinturicchio beside him. Raphael may also have worked on the frescoes 

Next up was the Baptistery, built in the early 14th century and decorated mostly by Vecchietta in the 15th C.

The ceiling frescoes show the Articles of Christian Faith

After lunch, we ticked off the museum and the "unfinished façade", which you can climb for a great view of the Duomo and Il Campo (and the rest of Siena). We had to queue a little while to go up, because they only let a small number of a time up (space is limited up there), but it's worthwhile for the views.

In front of the Torre del Mangia in the Piazza del Campo

Selfie with the Duomo behind us
It took me a while to work out that I was meant to be posing like the blurry group behind, not just showing off the ring
The Duomo from the Unfinished Façade


Original statues and stained glass from the Duomo
Lastly, we visited the Crypt under the cathedral, which is decorated with brightly-painted 13th century frescoes. The coolest thing about this was it was only discovered in 1999. It's not huge and my pictures didn't come out very well because of the light, but it's pretty neat to see something that lay secretly below the cathedral for so long until so recently. There was also a group of 7 old French people in there who spent the entire time we were down there arguing about how to split the 2€ cost of listening to an audio description of the crypt between 7 people. If I were in a sitcom, I would have just given them the 2€, but being normal people, we just rolled our eyes.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

The gates of heaven

It felt like there were fewer tourists overall in Siena than in Florence, but they were more heavily concentrated, due to the much smaller size and because there is really one pre-eminent tourist attraction to visit - the cathedral and its associated sites, so everyone was funnelled in there together.

We were no exceptions to this rule, and went for the full-on cathedral experience with all the bells and whistles, starting with the "Gates of Heaven" tour, which takes you into the rafters to see the cathedral from above.

The amazing floor mosaics are best enjoyed from above!

By the time we had finished the tour, it had started to fill up quite a bit in the cathedral below. Of course, it would be great to see it in peace and quiet, but it's hard to detract from such a beautiful building. Just the black and white columns alone are stunning.

Mosaic of Siena at the centre of Italian cities (not sure why they get Romulus and Remus)

Busts of the popes line the ceiling 

We had a full day of duomo and duomo-related activities, but I think that's enough for one post!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

San Jimmy G

Before visiting San Gimignano, what I knew about the town was basically: looks nice, on a hill, lots of towers. After visiting, I can say: looks nice, on a hill, lots of towers, lots of tourists, great cathedral. After doing a little research right this second, I can add: it's been a World Heritage Site since 1990, it used to have 72 towers at its height, but now only has 14. Same reason as Bologna, wealthy families competing to have the best and highest towers until eventually the city council put a stop to it. But why was this small town wealthy and important enough to support 72 rich, tower-crazed families?

The town was named after St Geminianus of Modena, who persuaded followers of Attila the Hun to spare the city's castle from destruction in 450 AD. It became a stopping point on the pilgrimage to Rome and on agricultural trade, particularly in saffron and wine. Its growth was halted by the Black Death, which killed about half its population, and it came under Florentine domination and subsequently declined. This, similar to the changing financial fortunes of Bruges, helped to preserve it in time as a charming medieval town and therefore a tourist honeypot.

On the busy main street

I noted on my itinerary that the Duomo (it's actually the "Collegiate Church", for the record) had "pretty frescoes", but I don't think I had seen any pictures of the interior before our visit. It is stunning, and would be enough to warrant a visit even without the medieval streets and towers. The 14th century frescoes are divided into tales from the New and Old Testaments, recounting key bible stories to illiterate churchgoers. We got an audioguide with our ticket which, albeit narrated by a very boring and longwinded man, had a lot of good details which really helped to focus and take in all the different scenes.

Grumpy because I had to wear a cape of shame to cover up my sinful shoulders

Worth the shame cape

Job's house collapses in an earthquake - in the Bible it was caused by "a mighty wind", but apparently earthquakes struck more of a chord in this region

The Last Judgement

The New Testament frescoes

Old Testament frescoes with animals and the creation of Eve

More trouble for poor old Job
Post-duomo, we had a fairly dry and disappointing porchetta sandwich (the Italians do many culinary things well, but I still maintain that when it comes to baking - sweet and savoury - the French clearly have the edge) and then walked up to the Rocca di Montestaffoli to get some views of the city, passing a Dante on the way (dressed like the poet and reciting the Inferno in Italian from memory - or at least that's what he purported to be doing, could have been reading a soup recipe for all I know)

While we snapped some pretty photos in this part of the city, I knew I'd seen photos online that showed the whole skyline from a distance. I thought maybe we'd have to drive far out of the city to get a good perspective, but after a bit of googling, I discovered you could walk out of the south gate and on to the Via Vecchia per Poggibonsi and get the shot from there. That meant a little bit of an uphill climb on the way back, but luckily there was a gelato stop just inside the city walls.