Highlights of Siena

a day trip from Florence – part one

streets in Siena
Narrow medieval streets in Siena

Here we are with the second article from the series dedicated to day trips around Tuscany. After our trip to Lucca, this time I want to bring you to Siena, a gothic jewel of Tuscany, a city where the time is frozen, a magical place where you can touch, smell and taste the past. Because of the richness of Siena, I will write two separate articles about this marvellous town. In this one, you will find some practical information about your trip to Siena and a brief history of the city. I will also talk about the most particular event taking place in Siena every year – the famous Palio horse race! In the end, there will be also some tips for the foodies!

In the next post, instead, I will talk about the Sienese art and historical monuments. I want to guide you through the Palazzo Pubblico and the magnificent Sienese Cathedral and the Cathedral Museum. Stay tuned!

Why should I visit Siena?

There are so many fascinating places in Tuscany that you may ask, why should Siena be on your itinerary. I think, that it is definitely worth visiting this particular town which is a real gothic jewel of Italy! For many centuries, Siena has been the biggest competitor of Florence and the second biggest city of Tuscany. Therefore, the town preserves many treasures related to the days of its glory during the thirteen, the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. If you want to visit Siena without rush and discover its beautiful territory situated on the South of the city, you may consider a longer stay in the area. Siena definitely deserves a longer attention but if your holiday is short and you don’t have time for an overnight stay in Siena, a day trip is a solution for you. In one day you will be able to visit the most important sights in the city, you will admire some real masterpieces of Italian medieval art and you will discover Siena’s fascinating history.

View on the Sienese Cathedral from the Torre del Mangia
View on the Sienese Cathedral from the Torre del Mangia.

How to reach Siena from Florence?

Siena is located 80 km (50 miles) on South of Florence. You can easily reach it by bus. The buses depart from the bus station in Florence, located just behind the train station, in Santa Caterina da Siena street. Here you can find the schedule of the line 131 Florence-Siena. This bus has two different routes. The ordinary one (corse ordinarie) is a slower route that passes through the smaller towns on the way, while the rapid one (corse rapide) goes straight to Siena without stopping anywhere else. The ticket costs you 8,40 € each way. The travel with the rapid ride takes about 1h15’.

If you came to Italy by car or you decided to rent your car here, you can easily reach Siena by car. You must get to the superstrada Firenze-Siena which brings you directly there. Once in Siena you can park your car on one of many parking lots around the town. The most convenient are the San Francesco parking and the parking at the Fortress . However, the latter is closed on Wednesdays due to the weekly market.

The Middle Ages – the Golden Age of Siena

Siena is undoubtedly a medieval town. However, a small settlement existed in the area already during the Etruscan domination of Tuscany. The archaeologists have found in Siena few examples of Etruscan ceramics dating from the eight century BC. Nevertheless, until the eleventh century Siena did not acquire much relevance. The situation changed together with the development of European trade and increasing importance of the Via Romea, also called Via Francigena, which became the main communication route between North and South of Italy. The road was used by merchants, but also by pilgrims who wanted to visit Rome and the tomb of St. Peter. The Via Francigena greatly contributed to economical, urbanistic and demographic development of Siena. Merchants, pilgrims and numerous travellers passed through the town and the locals offered them various services. In this way hospitality, banking services and trade became the main sources of wealth for Siena.

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The development of the city brought to a bigger political independence of the town. In 1125 a new consular government substituted the previous bishops’ rule over Siena and a new republican era begun. The republican governments ruled the city efficiently taking care of the citizens’ wellbeing. The most influential of the Sienese governments was the Government of the Nine, which ruled the city between 1287 and 1355. The Nine rulers, elected from among the members of the upper-middle class of the Sienese society, took particular care of the public space of the city. They commissioned the construction of a new city hall, the Palazzo Pubblico, and paid the local artists for the decoration of its walls with a series of strongly political frescoes, which praised the Sienese republic and the abilities of its rulers.

The crisis started in Siena together with the arrival of the plague in 1348. Because of this horrible disease, the population of the city was decimated, and the economics of Siena collapsed. The plague also caused the political instability, which strongly weakened the city and brought to the collapse of the state. In 1555 Siena was conquered by Florence and the Sienese territory became part the Grand Duchy of Tuscany. In some way, after the loss of independence the time froze for Siena. The Sienese carried on their traditions and preserved their customs unaware of profound changes in the other parts of Europe.

The contrade and the Palio race 

Piazza del Campo
Piazza del Campo and the track ready for the Palio horse race.

Today, Siena is a unique example of a society that still observes some of the customs deeply rooted in the medieval past. The city is still divided into seventeen neighbourhoods, called contrade originating from the military organization of medieval Siena. In the past the civic guards, which together formed the Sienese army, were assigned to the neighbourhoods. Today the contrade, however, function as social circles. They reinforce the social bonds between the Sienese. The members of the contrade participate in any of the important event of others’ lives, such as birthdays, weddings and funerals, they organize food festivals and common dinners for the members of the contrada and, what I probably should have mentioned at the beginning, they organize the famous Palio horse race, that takes place twice a year in Piazza del Campo.

The Palio is the most important event in the life of any Sienese. The race takes place on 2 July and 16 August, on two days related to two religious festivities, the Visitation and the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. In fact, the race is run in honour of the Virgin, the Queen of Siena, to whom the city is dedicated since the miraculous victory of the Sienese army against Florence at Montaperti in 1260. On the occasion Piazza del Campo, the principal public square of Siena, becomes a real track for the race. The stone ring around the square is covered with a thick layer of sand. On the outside of the track, they build wooden stands from which part of the public can assist to the race. The admission to these sits is paid and therefore most people and most of the Sienese watch the race from the middle of the square where everybody enters for free.

The race starts form the widest point of the track, the horses run three times around the square, clockwise. The race lasts about 90 seconds and in the end there is only one winning contrada who wins the silk banner with an image of the Virgin Mary, the Palio, and gets the right to organize the celebrations of their victory lasting until autumn.

It is impossible to describe the Palio race in just few lines. There are so many rules regarding this particular competition, so many deeply rooted traditions and customs, that it is almost impossible to synthetize the idea of this race in a brief description. Just to give you an idea: the real protagonist of this race is the horse. The horses are really worshiped by the Sienese. Each horse is blessed before the race in the contrada’s church. The horse can win the race even if he concludes it without its jokey. Finally, the horse occupies the place of honour during the supper organized by the winning contrada straight after the race. Many people ask me, why the Sienese continue to organize the Palio. The reason is that the race still today represents the pride and honour of the locals, allows them to compete between each other and stirs up their emotions.

Coming to Siena during the period of the race when the city gets ready for this unique competition, or even visiting the town on the day of the Palio, is a great experience. If you want to assist to the Palio, you have to organize your stay in advance. If you want to pay for a comfortable sit on the benches around the square, you have to contact the shops/restaurants/bars located in Piazza del Campo which are responsible for the installation of the stalls. The entrance to the square, however, if free of charge. Remember though, that the square closes around 5 pm on the day of the race, and the Palio takes place in the evening (at 7:30 pm in July and at 7 pm in August). Thus, you have to enter the square at least two and a half hours in advance. Before the race there will be a beautiful parade of the contrade with drums and flags which will stir up spectators’ emotions. Remember, don’t drink too much because there are no loos in the square!

Siena for foodies

The Sienese ricciarelli from the famous Nannini pastry shop.

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Siena is a paradise for foodies! During your stay don’t forget to try the pici with wild boar sauce and the cold cuts made with the cinta senese, a special breed of domestic pig. However, it is the Sienese pastry-making tradition, that makes the Sienese cuisine so special. Because the city developed along a busy road, Sienese pastry-making absorbed many of the ingredients coming from distant regions, like almonds, spices and mixed dried fruit, widely used in the Arab world.
During your stay in Siena don’t forget to try these delicious sweet treats:

  • Ricciarelli are soft almond cookies made with the almond flour and egg whites. The recipe goes back to the fifteenth century. Here, on Juls’ kitchen, you can find all the indications about the preparation of the ricciarelli.
  • Cavallucci are spiced cookies with walnuts, candied orange, aniseed and cinnamon. If you want to learn how to prepare them, see Emiko Davies’ recipe.
  • Panforte is a thick, spicy cake with dry fruits and nuts. Its origins go back to the Middle Ages when panforte was prepared by the monks in the Tuscan monasteries. In Siena panforte is a compulsory dessert during the Christmas lunch. If you want to discover the ingredients of this marvellous treat, here you will find Giulia’s recipe.

There is so much more in Siena! In the next post I will give you few tips about the historical monuments you have to see during your stay in the town. Stay tuned!

If you’re planning your holiday in Tuscany and you want to discover Siena with me, contact me! We can organize your private tour of Siena and discover the treasures of this unique city together!