Not a large city with only approx. 50,000 inhabitants, but one rich in its history and culture. I had visited the city for a couple of days many years ago during a two-week jaunt through Italy, and my most lasting memory was of the large square, the Piazza del Campo, and I even used it for the closing scene in my attempt to write a novel.
Piazza del Campo
It was designed in the shape of shell to drain rainwater, paved with brick in 1347 and subdivided into nine sections, representing the Government of Nine, an oligarchy of rich merchants. At the top is the Fonte Gaia (Joyful Fountain) built in 1419. It is also fed by one of the many tunnels were to bring water to the city and drain the surrounding countryside.
It originally continued two nude statues of Rhea Silvia and Acca Larentia. Quote from Wikipedia: “The former sculptures were replaced in 1866 by free copies by Tito Sarrocchi, who omitted Jacopo della Quercia’s two nude statues of Rhea Silvia and Acca Larentia, which the nineteenth-century city fathers found too pagan or too nude. When they were set up in 1419, Jacopo della Quercia’s nude figures were the first two female nudes, who were neither Eve nor a repentant saint, to stand in a public place since Antiquity.”
The statue of Acca Larentia in the museum Santa Maria della Scala:
I had taken a two-week language course in Perugia the previous year. The school was great and I felt that I had made a lot of progress, but the one-a-week evening courses back home were insufficient to make much progress. In fact, I felt that my Italian was deteriorating. Since Perugia is also small and I felt that I had seen a great many of its sights, I decided to take my next course in Siena.
My train was scheduled for 7 a.m., but when I checked the morning of departure, I saw that there was no such train at that time. I had to hurry and catch one leaving 20 minutes earlier to make my connection in Zurich. On the next train, I wondered why someone else also had my reserved seat and even asked the conductor once, but he was in a hurry and just said everything was fine. Otherwise, no one checked my ticket or passport.
I switched trains in Milan, and soon an unfriendly conductor asked to see my ticket. It had been issued for the wrong month, one month before I traveled. She told me to get off the train at the next stop, which was a suburb of Milan. I feared that it would be a small station with no recourse to my problem. I hesitated at the stop, but then rushed to the back of the train. I intended to hide in a toilet, but they didn’t lock, so I sat in the last car, changed my shirt and looked out the window. The conductor came to the last car, but suddenly decided that she had already checked everyone there and turned around. I rode nervously for the next hour and then got out at Emilio Romagna, where I bought another ticket to continue. The trains were really full, and I had to buy a ticket in “Executive Class,” which was a bit expensive, but at least I was on my way again.
I had booked a room in an Airbnb apartment, since the shared apartments that the school had advertised apparently did not exist. The owner Pino picked me up at the station, gave me a bottle of wine that his son had made and which was not sold in stores, and showed me where some good restaurants were. He was really helpful, sending me messages at times asking if everything was okay. At the end, he also picked me up and drove me back to the train station. Best Airbnb host I have ever had!
House where the apartment was located:
Beautiful view from the balcony with the Apennines in the distance.
An alley next to the building led to a series of escalators, five in all, which descended a parking garage, which made the elevation of the place clear to me. It is adjacent to the Basilica di San Francesco, a Franciscan monastery founded in the 13th century.
Eighteen members of the Tolomei family are buried under a staircase. According to a legend, they were slaughtered on Easter Monday 1337 when two families, Salimbeni and Tolomei, decided to celebrate peace with a feast on Easter Monday. The Salimbeni took the skewers, which were roasting meat, and murdered their rivals. The hill on which my apartment and the Basilica are located was renamed Malamerenda, i.e., a distasteful meal.
The school in Siena was also quite good, but completely different but language schools I had attended in Perugia and various other countries. Whereas in Perugia we had a book, 45-minute lessons, then break, then another class, etc., the school in Siena had no books and the teachers simply listened to the students’ ability and then decided on what to teach. The emphasis seemed to be much more on social interaction than on traditional lessons. The first day started with more than one hour of coffee and just conversing with the other students and teachers, which was quite good since several of the participants were Italian teachers in their respective countries and the language level was quite high. Most of the others had already been there several times, some even more than five times.
Classes “started” at nine in the morning and continued without a break until noon when everyone retired to a nearby café. An “aperitivo” was arranged on the first evening, which took place at a restaurant/bar on the Piazza del Campo, and all had lunch together on Friday. Different course participants invited all for drinks to their places each week, and we all went out to eat together after one of them.
However, the second week I was in a class with only one other Scottish guy, and I requested lessons on specific grammar topics that I was having difficulty with. The classes were really intensive and instructive, and even the wife of the Scot, who is an Italian teacher at home, joined us because the lessons were so good. The teacher told us that most Italian do not use the subjunctive or even the conditional tense, and when they do, they often incorrectly. We would see it mostly in writing. I was happy that the teachers told me that I had no foreign accent in Italian, but they said there are a lot of different accents in Italy itself.
I was quite surprised by the age of students, since almost all were between 60 and 80 years old with only two men a few years younger. I have attended language schools in several countries, and the participants were almost always young. A friend suggested that Italian is just not as popular as Spanish, French, Chinese, etc., since it can only be used in Italy for the most part.
One morning, the teacher just said that we were going to visit a market as our lesson. The market was only in the morning and only that day, so it was a good opportunity.
Great-tasting cheese! Pecorino is the specialty there.
Finocchiona (fennel) salami, another local specialty
And, of course, some wine from the area:
We barely had arrived back at the school, when a couple, who had been at the school for a month, invited everyone for an “apertivo” (sparkling wine and snacks) at a neighboring bar. But we had to hurry, because we had the rare chance to visit the museum and clubhouse of a “contrade”, a ward-like association of which there are 17 in Siena. These associations are each represented by a symbol, often an animal, and there is intense rivalry among them, especially during the Palio, a horse race around the Piazza del Campo held twice a year (but which was being held for the first time in two years this summer due to the Covid pandemic). Large crowds attend the race, and it can be a big dangerous for both the riders and spectators.
One of the teachers was a member of the Torre contrade, represented by an elephant with a tower on its back. They were originally set up to supply troops to defend Siena, but now they are groups espousing love of their districts.
We got a quite extensive introduction to the association from a knowledgeable member in what seemed to be more a church than a clubhouse.
They hang up a picture each year that they win the Palio.
I was staying in the district of the Girafe (giraffe) contrade, and they came down the street practicing for the Palio while I was eating dinner.
The drumming was really monotonous, and I had to put up with it most afternoons for the next two weeks.
The street down to where I lived with flags from the Giraffe clan.
After the museum, we had lunch together. I ordered Pici con caccio e pepe, thick noodles with cheese and pepper, a specialty in the area. The dish was really delicious, and I wondered why I had never seen this pasta in Italian restaurants or stores previously.
Another local dish that was really sumptuous was anchovies in pesto, served as an appetizer, this time with beer although I usually drank the delicious wine from the region.
One of the teachers invited me and a couple of other students to accompany her to a concert in the countryside Friday evening. I hadn’t realized that we would have to drive that far, and it took us approx. 45 minutes to reach the location, driving down a gravel road at the end. I thought I was back in the 60s, in what seemed to be a kind of hippie community. An Argentine had a house there and held events from time to time for friends and acquaintances. A couple played Brazilian music for an hour or so, and then there was a pot-luck meal (I and the other students had not known about it and hadn’t brought anything ourselves). The food was mostly “healthy”, i.e., didn’t taste very good, but then it was free and I wasn’t very hungry anyway, still full from the pasta at lunch.
The weekend finally gave me some time for sightseeing in town. Of course, my first stop was the Palazzo Publico (town hall) with its tower, the Torre del Mangia, the construction of which was finished in 1310. I went early, since tickets are limited and the staircase is one-way: too narrow for people going up and down at the same time. It is 102 meters high and the second tallest one in Italy.
View from the top:
Then on to the Duomo (cathedral), constructed in the 13th century.
I first visited the museum.
The boys hangin’ out:
Was he begging?
View from the top:
In the cathedral
Not exactly a Christian figure in the inlaid marble floor. Quote from Wikipedia: “The inlaid marble mosaic floor is one of the most ornate of its kind in Italy, covering the whole floor of the cathedral.”
Piccolomini Library adjoining the cathedral
While there, I thought I might as well buy tickets for the whole caboodle, so last stop was up a lot of stairs to the “Porta del Cielo” (door to Heaven) where you can look down onto the interior of the cathedral.
However, I decided not to pass through the door to Heaven, but instead descended back down to the Earth.
Nice street names if I got the translation right: Street of the Bad Times Arch
Street of the Discontented
One of the three pilgrim paths in the Middle Ages was the Via Francigena, which enters Siena through Porta Camolia. The motto carved into it translates as “Siena opens its heart to you wider than this gate.” It was the best defended gate, leading to and blocking the road to Florence.
Through the gate is Via Camollia, one of the main streets in town.
Continuing on, you pass the Piazza Salimbeni: quite a sight when illuminated in the evening:
The next small square on the left contains the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena S.p.A., the oldest or second oldest bank in the world depending on whom you talk to.
On to Piazza del Campo
An important place on the pilgrimage was the former hospital (as you can see, there were hordes of tourists, so many that I felt claustrophobic trying to navigate the streets at times). Siena was full of American tourists, and the males were easily recognizable from a distance by their baseball caps.
There is a quite good museum inside, Santa Maria della Scala, although it seemed like few tourists ventured inside.
Treatment in the hospital
And of course, Ms. Larentia, languishing in a lower level of the museum.
Pilgrims left Siena headed for Rome through the Porta Roma.
But I left via the train station, where my helpful Airbnb host drove me. The train to Florence was late, and then the train to Milan was late. I missed my connection, and they told me there would be another train to Zurich in 2 ½ hours. However, I learned that there was a train leaving immediately to Lugano, where it would be possible to switch to another train to Zurich. I got on it, but after half an hour, they announced that the train had technical problems and would stop there. But there was another train leaving one minute later for Lugano, followed by another short wait for a train to Zurich. Then I hopped on a local train to Basel Main Station, another train to the station at the German border, and then a local home. I was on eight different trains and had to change seven times, but only arrived 1 ½ hour later than my original schedule.
Of course, I brought back some souvenirs!