Sunday, November 9, 2008

Siena - the Embodiment of "Bella Toscana"

Siena is one of those towns where, just by speaking the name, you can capture the imagination of just about anyone. For those who have never been there, it’s a mystical paradise, a small town nestled in the sun-soaked Tuscan hills. For those who have been fortunate enough to walk its cobbled streets, it has the same basic effect.

Due to the vagaries of the Italian daylight savings time, I arrived in the idyllic town with my family after dark, when the shops were closed and everyone was in bed for the night. We took a cab from the deserted train station to our hotel, catching shadowy glimpses of the town’s hidden beauty.

When my alarm went off the next morning, I rubbed my eyes, dragged myself out of bed and opened the shutters of my second-floor room. Looking out the window, Siena, and Tuscany for that matter, was everything I’d anticipated.

Narrow streets were bordered by multistory buildings topped with mossy tile roofs. The view over the town was of rolling hills vaguely reminiscent of California’s Napa Valley in the spring. The hillsides were peppered with villas and other buildings that could have been 20 years old or 200 years old.

Breakfast in the hotel turned out to be one of those moments many travelers experience when outside their own national borders. The family-style meal was shared by us, the Italian owners and an Italian family. None of them could speak English, so a lot of finger-pointing and smiles from everyone made sure we each got our share of the food.

Once outside, we let my sister lead, as she’d been living in Florence for a month and a half and had already visited Siena.

Our first stop was the most magnificent – the Duomo. Built in the late 1300s, the cathedral embodies the Italian Romanesque architecture. It’s smaller than the builders originally intended, since money ran out before its epic proportions could be realized.

What is there, however, doesn’t disappoint. The façade is a medley of colored marble and carvings. The winged statue at the peak looks down on all who enter. Such elegance was built to inspire people’s faith, and standing at the base of the wall, it’s easy to see how that was achieved.

With such a beautiful exterior, I wasn’t expecting the interior to match its splendor, but my assumptions were unfounded. The interior was fantastic, and words really can’t do it justice. Unfortunately, my photos are mostly terrible, but the walls were covered in religious paintings and statues. The black marble floor had white inlaid images of saints and religious figures, and the inside of the dome was painted a deep blue and detailed with golden stars.

Leaving the Duomo, I didn’t believe my sister when she said Florence’s Duomo had a more beautiful façade. I marveled at the power the Catholic Church had in the middle ages, to be able to build so many cathedrals across so many lands that survive to this day.

Our next stop was the Piazza del Campo, where, twice each year, horse races are run, and Siena’s 17 neighborhoods renew their rivalries. When we were there, however, the piazza was full of people, most sitting in the sunlit open center and admiring the architecture surrounding them. We decided it was a good idea, so we bought gelato from a nearby vendor and joined them.

Siena’s old town is small, and we decided to see if we could lose ourselves within it. That proved to be difficult, but we were happy to wander the many small streets and alleyways, seeing how new buildings were built right on top of the old.

During our wandering, we came across many ceramics shops. The friendly proprietors of one invited us in, and explained that they make all of their wares by hand. The pieces are extremely good, and the prices tended to reflect that.

For lunch, we ate pizza, which always seems better in Italy. The thin crust and varied toppings complemented each other perfectly, and the Peroni beer had the effect of confirming that I was, in fact, in Italy.

With limited time in the town, we made our last stop before leaving for Florence – the Basilica of San Domenico. In stark contrast to the Duomo’s elegance and beauty, the basilica, which was built a little more than a hundred years earlier, is a mostly ugly, symmetrical brown building with a fairly boring exterior.

Despite its unimpressive exterior, it houses something I have yet to see anywhere else – the head of a Catholic saint. The head belonged to Saint Catherine, who lived during the building of the Duomo. I wasn’t at all spiritually moved by seeing the woman’s head (complete with skin I seem to recall was added after a hundred years or so), but it was definitely a memorable sight, as it sat there looking back at me.

Leaving Siena, I was left with the impression that it was everything it was cracked up to be – which should speak volumes for the town. Though I doubt I could live there for too long before feeling the need to be in a bustling city, it joins Rothenburg and Bruges as one of my favorite small towns in the world.


Eric said...

Hey Brandon,
It's a bit off topic of course(!) but I just wanted to say I appreciated your comment on my blog (ParisDailyPhoto): "It's important to remember the history", which is unusual from someone who is 25.

laurensking said...

wow, Brandon it sounds amazing. Just the thought of gelato is making me drool. I would love to visit some of these places again, now that I'm older and have more appreciation for the architecture and history (as opposed to when I was 16 and had appreciation for the boys and beer). I hope you'll document your Paris adventure!