Renaissance jewel of the Tuscan countryside
Tuscany? What about Florence?
What, the dippy bird from The Magic
Roundabout? Oh, you mean Firenze, as those stubborn locals will insist on calling it. It’s lovely in theory but so swamped with tourists that it’s actually pretty horrible most of the time. Siena is much more appealing. It still gets a lot of visitors but manages to keep its identity as a real town, not just a tourist trap.
OK, so what’s worth seeing?
All of the old town - it’s beautiful. Mellow brickwork, ancient wood, gorgeous sculpted stone, but all on a human scale — less of the overblown boasting of Rome’s public architecture, for example. Wander the streets, listening to the classical music coming from every direction, sample some of the local Chianti or just grab an ice cream, sit in the Campo and watch the world go by.
Sit in the what?
The Piazza del Campo, basically the town square, though it’s not square at all, more sort of shell-shaped. It’s the heart of the town, the bit that helps it all make sense as a neutral space in the middle of competing local districts. In medieval times the town was divided into separate, more or less selfgoverning areas called Contrade, and rivalry between them was fierce. Still is, especially around the time of the Palio.
There you go again. What does Palio mean?
It’s a horse race, traditionally held twice a year (early July and mid-august), between young members of the different Contrade, competing for bragging rights. Actually, technically it’s contested by the horses — unlike most horse races, the horse can win even if it’s thrown its rider. What makes it spectacular is it takes place in the Piazza del Campo, on a slippy, uneven and sloping stone surface that almost always results in accidents.
Couldn’t they do it on motorbikes instead?
That’d be good. But with more than 400 years of history behind the equine version, it’s not going to change any time soon. Anyway, probably best to avoid Siena itself during the Palio on the grounds that it’ll be packed. So why not explore the local countryside instead — there are miles and miles of great roads including long stretches of Strade Bianchi — white roads — so called because they’re basically marble gravel. Ideal to give your adventure bike a sniff of off-road action.
Stunning architecture in and around the centre of Siena