by Claudina V,
For many visitors to Italy, the daily itinerary is an endless parade of historical sites, cathedrals, priceless paintings and gut-busting meals. Instead of experiencing la dolce vita, they experience feelings of exhaustion and being overwhelmed — and leave feeling like they saw everything and yet nothing at all.
That’s why when many people arrive in Siena, they feel time has stopped. It could be the 800-year old buildings that wind up the hillside, the lack of cars in the central city and a generally slower, more relaxed pace of life — or simply the fact the city feels far removed from the hassles of modern life. For the visitor overwhelmed by the fast pace of other Italian cities, Siena is a place to kick back and enjoy simple pleasures.
The Basics: Food and Shelter
Because Siena is chiefly a tourism destination, accommodations are plentiful. However, those who want to truly relax tend to search for a bed and breakfast in Siena. Many of the city’s smaller B&Bs are family operated, offering visitors privacy with the chance to relax as well as to enjoy Italian hospitality and home-cooked meals.
Food is where Siena shines. You’ll find an abundance of osterias in Siena, or small rustic dining rooms similar to taverns serving simple menus highlighting local fare. Everyon has their own favorite osteria — try out several, like Da Trombicche, where you’ll find large groups of friends enjoying specialties like panzanella and meatballs. Osteria Sotto le Fontiis another popular choice. Located in the shadow of the Duomo, the English-speaking owner is a rarity in Siena — she is also a wine expert (don’t miss the Chianti from nearby vineyards) and will help you build the perfect meal and wine pairing.
Picnics in the Piazzas
While there are plenty of osterias and ristorantes in Siena, on Sunday afternoons, many of the city’s residents take to the countryside to enjoy a picnic and relax. Pack a picnic lunch from one of Siena’s delis and take to the hills for some quiet time. About 40 minutes from town, Rotonda di Montesiepi, the former hermitage of San Galgano is an ideal place for a breather. Saint Galgano was born and raised in Siena and lived a life of debauchery before giving his life over to God, symbolically lodging his sword into a stone outside of the abbey, turning it into a cross. The sword in the stone is still there today, and while a popular spot with visitors and locals, the long-abandoned abbey has plenty of quiet and secluded spots for relaxation and reflection.
Siena proper is home to several open-air piazzas and public areas as well. The Piazza del Campo is the prototypical Italian plaza, a seashell-shaped space surrounding Siena’s town hall and lined with open-air cafes and shops. This is the ideal place to stop for a drink and watch the world go by, or to enjoy an evening grappa or vin santo. Don’t expect bustling nightlife in this city, though. On most evenings, the major activity is the passeggio, or stroll around town, which might include a stop for gelato or drink at a café or bar.
Museums and More
While Siena is ideal for slowing down and experiencing the beauty of Italy, it’s not all abandoned abbeys and delicious dishes. The Museo Civico, in the Piazza del Campo, celebrates Siena’s history; here you can view 14th-century frescoes and climb the Torre Mangia to view the surrounding countryside that runs right up to the city’s wall. The Cathedral of Siena (Duomo di Siena) is also worth exploring; the tower is the tallest in Tuscany and the façade is one of the most fascinating in Italy.
Siena truly comes alive in the summer, though. On July 2 and Aug. 16, Piazza del Campo transforms into a horse racetrack for Il Palio. Ten horses and riders, representing ten of the 17 city wards, ride bareback in a treacherous 90-second race around the piazza. The race itself is for the most part secondary to the four days of tradition, ceremony and pageantry leading up to the event. The highlight is the Corteo Storico, a lively historical costume parade.
Outside of ll Palio, though, Siena is a quiet and serene city. Largely unchanged for more than 800 years, Siena’s unspoiled charm mixed with modern conveniences makes it the perfect escape from the frenzied tourist hotspots of Florence and Rome.
About the Author: While studying art history in Florence, Madison Muir visited Siena for a weekend trip and fell in love. Although she lives in New York, she’s saving up for a flat in Siena where she can enjoy la dolce vita while working on her art.
Copyright Claudina V© STI