Looking back at our days in Siena from the overcast Isle of Britain, I remember the heat, and the smell of Siena. Ripe tomatoes and garlic, the bluest steak I have ever had and the amazing Chianti (wine of the Tuscan region). Not that it wasn’t overcast in Siena, and it did rain on us a bit, but the warm sun on stone centuries old quickly evaporates any moisture that falls from the sky.
We arrived in Siena mid-afternoon, after a rather annoying bus ride with a tour guide who kept jumping up right next to me and yelling in a microphone. We caught a taxi to our accommodation ‘Casa Mia’ (our taxi driver noted that it was ‘house mine’) and after settling in and being given a wonderful espresso from our host we set out into the streets of Siena. We had been told a little about the Il Palio, a famous horse race held in Siena each year (see this youtube clip ) once in July and once in August, so we set out to find the square.
We stumbled onto it and then almost got stuck in the mud! Because it was only 2 weeks until the first race was held, the track was being prepared – the mud was being hardened and the fence was already up. Whomever has seen the Bond film Quantum of Solace would recognise the race from the beginning scenes of the film where Bond chases somebody out from underground, through the race and then over the rooftops of Siena. When I saw the beginning of the movie last weekend, I was quite excited, it may have even prompted me to get on with it and get out of Rome blogwise.
We had another encounter with Il Palio, our second day in Siena we wandered into town and right into a display of one district – drumming, colourful uniforms (men in tights!) and displays of baton artistry. It was something special, and I will remember it forever. The main district we saw wore blue and white, and I squeaked when I spotted the colours on a rider in the Bond film. All around Siena flags were displayed for each district, 17 in all, but only 11 get to ride in the race. I have no idea how they decide who gets in, but the race is bare back, with no rules except no grabbing another horses bridle. I think it gets pretty rough.
After slipping around on the track for a bit, we walked underneath the seats that had been erected and walked to Siena’s basilica. A beautiful building with it’s zebra patterned facade and beautiful interior. The mosaics on the floor are 13th century, and the sculpted interiors include mythological beasts and hundreds of heads, looking down on the visitors. They are sculpted heads, not like the preserved head of St Catherine (she of the Catherine Wheel) that we saw the following day. It was not shrivelled like the heads in The Mummy II, nor was it grossly decomposed. A rather serene looking face, well lit, maybe to hide the slight green tinge to her skin.
So, what else to do in Siena? Why, dine in the fantastic ristorante’s and trattorias! We dined in a fancy one across the street from Casa Mia – the steak was divine, the wine fragrant and intoxicating (*wink) and my semi freddo dessert capped off a lovely evening. The following day we had lunch at a family ristorante, complete with red and white chequered table cloths and a friendly host who kept coming over to our table and smiling at us. I don’t think he spoke English, he was just keen to see that we enjoyed our meals. Which we did, most heartily.