Adventures in Italy: Day 7 Siena, Montepulciano, Chianciano


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April 10th 2017
Published: April 10th 2017
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Italy Day 7, Monday, October 10, Siena

I am off to explore the town of Siena, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, known as the best conserved town in all of Europe. This tour is optional with GCT and only a small portion of our group decided to go, many having been there before, my husband Dave decided to try to rest hoping his eye would heal.

On the hour long bus ride to Siena we passed fields of harvested wheat, barley and farrow and a few grapes still clinging to the vines. Vibrant orange and red berries of pyracantha cascaded along walls. Hunters prowled the fields with their guns and dogs across the recently tilled red clay fields. The Val d' Orcia soil is clay-based but a lighter color clay than the red clay of the Chianti region. All throughout the Tuscan hills we saw the remains of towers perched atop hills, remainders of a protective defense once used in the Middle Ages to ward off enemies.

The population of Siena is 50,000, and has not changed much since the Middle Ages. As we approached the city of Siena I saw cars clogging traffic and everywhere busses vomited out hoards of people. This did not bode well but to my relief we were able to avoid most of the throng going into the medieval city. It was also a relief to learn that no cars are allowed inside much of the city, making walking and sightseeing a pleasure.

Siena, dating back to the 13th century, was on the ancient road for pilgrims from France to Rome or the Via Francigena. The Basilica Cateriniana di Santo Domenico, dating back to the 1200s, was a welcoming place for these pilgrims to stay on their way to Rome but there is only one nave in the large church used solely for the travelers. Saint Catherine, born in Siena during the Black Death, even at a very early age was considered a genius. One of 25 children, she claimed a mystic marriage with Jesus when she was 21. She was a church scholar and very active politically. She was venerated here in part because at age 29, acting as Ambassador of the Republic of Florence, she had asked Pope Gregory XI to return his administration to Rome from France. Saint Catherine founded a women’s monastery and was named a Doctor of the church in 1970. She died of a stroke in Rome at age 33. Her right thumb is a relic proudly displayed here in the church. Near this relic is Catherine’s mummified head, smuggled out of Rome, and displayed in an ornate reliquary. As important as Catherine is to Siena and this church, controversial brightly colored stained glass windows were added recently over the altar under a lot of objection from local residents, taking away a bit of the shine from Catherine. (No photography was allowed inside so you will have to see these things for yourself).

Florence and Siena have been warring since the towns were formed and even today there is a nasty, unfriendly rivalry between the peoples in these two cities. The competition between old cities goes back centuries, in fact conflict is also going on between many other Italian cities like Rome and Verona.

July 6 and August 16 are the days for the famous annual bareback horse race called The Palio held in Siena’s main square. There are 17 ancient districts or contrade in Siena and each has a different animal attributed to it. Our guide Marilee lives in the district of the Rhino. Each district has its own stable for their horses. During the Palio 10 horses are chosen to race from a lottery of all the contrade. The chosen horses no longer belong to the district but will represent the district identified by the district colors. Before the race the Palio horse is brought into the church, presumably to be blessed. The bareback race is considered quite dangerous running three laps of the piazza in about 90 seconds. Hundreds of people throng the town center cheek and jowl to watch this intense competition. This race is really all about the horse because if a rider should be thrown and the horse cross the finish line riderless, it is the horse (and it’s contrada) that claims the victory.

On our walk towards the center of town we passed the city’s well where the people of Siena used to come for their water. Water was a very important resource since there was no river nearby.

Not far from the ancient well we passed the Sanctuary and House of Saint Catherine, her childhood home, now a church and a popular place of pilgrimage. The Sanctuary is in the Contrada dell’Oca near a famous travertine well from the late 1400s. Opposite the church is the museum of the Contrada dell’Oca that displays trophies from the famous Palio. Catherine is also the patron saint of the Contrada of the Goose.

As we continued walking with our guide we were told that the soil in these steep hills yields the pigment ‘Burnt Sienna’, spelled with two ’n’s. This pigment color is known and used by painters and artists, but it is the yellow marble of Siena in which these Sienans take particular pride.

In a piazza above the Piazza del Campo a great Gothic building that demands attention. The masterpiece of design and sculpture by Giovanni Pisano known locally as The Duomo, begs to be explored inside and out. This magnificent and massive medieval Siena Cathedral, now dedicated to the Assumption of Saint Mary, dominates the skyline of Siena. The cathedral was begun in the 1200s but it took over two centuries to complete because in 1348 the Black Death killed 4/5 of the population of Siena. Because of this tragedy an unfinished wall and arch is left as a reminder of the plague.

This beautiful and impressive cathedral holds the most important floors in the world, and together with masterpieces such as Donatello’s St John the Baptist, four sculptures by Michelangelo and two sculptures by Bernini makes this cathedral one of the most important churches in the world. There are 59 etched and inlaid marble panels on the floor of this church with elaborate and intricate designs depicting bible stories and allegories. For preservation, these floors are usually covered but we were in luck because during the months of September and October, these mosaic panels are uncovered giving access to these amazing works of art. 172 plaster busts of popes dating from the 15th and 16th centuries starting with St Peter and ending with Lucius III are perched upon the horizontal moulding around the nave and presbytery as if surveying all that goes on within the church. The popes are close to the heavens with brilliant blue and golden stars populating the high vaulted ceiling. Enormous black and white columns inside the church give the impression of stretching towards the heavens while dwarfing everything around it. Black and white is also used on the exterior of the church. It was interesting to learn that black and white are the colors of the civic coat of arms of Siena, another reason for this color choice.

In the north alcove just left of the altar we took turns entering the stunning Libreria Piccolomini. The library was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco Piccolomini, then Archbishop of Siena (later Pope Pius III). Its brilliant display of colorful frescoes by Perugian painter Pinturicchio Bernardino Di Betto) depicting the coronation of Pius III left me breathless. No candles or humidity ever entered this room thus preserving the color as if it were painted yesterday.

There is so much to take in inside the Duomo that I could never adequately describe all there is to be seen. Outside the church we saw the adjacent Baptistery and arches of the unfinished church whose building and facade were never completed. I saw the letters OPA both inside and outside the church and was curious about its meaning. OPA = Opera or Workshop Factory of Art.

A sculpture of the Capitoline Wolf sits atop a tall pedestal in front of the residence of the Archbishop, just to the left of the Duomo. Legend has it that Siena was founded by Senius and Aschius, two sons of Remus, thus nephews of Romulus. After their father’s murder by Romulus, the two fled Rome and brought with them the statue of the she-wolf which Siena accepted as its symbol.

At noon, after our tour of the Duomo, we stopped for lunch at a brick domed restaurant that was formerly a horse stall called Restaurant La Finestra. Church bells pealed in the distance as we were served our lunch. Red wine, a large fresh salad, a delicious creamy gnocchi and the lovely light panna cotta with raspberry and currant sauce is still memorable. Delicious!

I spent the next two hours working off lunch, enjoying the Italian tradition of the passeggiata, or a gentle stroll, exploring the shops and byways of the narrow hilly streets. I walked up the pilgrim walkway (Via dei Pellegrini) passing a chocolate shop with dripping chocolate, cheese shops, cafes and pottery gift shops. I doubt the religious pilgrims had any such luck but they did have an opportunity to buy a religious souvenir on their route to Rome. If you take your time the hoards of tourists will pass giving a small window of opportunity to photograph a scene empty of people. White Almond lemon cookies are found only in Siena as well as the traditional Panforte, a type of fruitcake with strong notes of cinnamon and cloves. Of course I bought some to take home with me!

Ceramic pottery is beautiful and prolific here but since I had little room to carry such objects I opted for the food. After making my purchases, a lovely scarf, two slices of their wonderful Panforte, some powdered sugar dusted almond cookies, chocolate and a small pottery ornament of Siena for our Xmas tree, I headed back into the sunlit Piazza del Campo to enjoy a cappuccino with co-travelers Mary and George while taking in the view of the renowned Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) with its gently tilted bell tower, Torre del Mangia. I regret that I was too tired to climb the 505 steps to the top. Instead, over coffee at a charming outdoor cafe, I tried to imagine the crowds filling this piazza all cheering for their contrada, their horse, their rider, to win the Palio. Of course I took an occasional photo to remember this lovely experience.

We returned to Chianciano to enjoy dinner in a lovely farmhouse at La Casina Ristorante overlooking Montepulciano delighting in a delicious house Montepulciano wine, hearty Tuscan bean soup, fresh bread and an even heartier stew. Perfect on a cold and chilly evening.

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