Desti­na­tion: Siena

Re­nais­sance jewel of the Tus­can coun­try­side

RiDE (UK) - - Contents -

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

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