By Rick Steves
Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers Italy’s best medieval city experience. With red-brick lanes tumbling every which way, the town is an architectural time warp, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.
Most people are content to see Siena on a day trip (it’s just 35 miles south of Florence), but it’s worth a longer visit. Florence may have the big-time museums, but Siena was made for strolling.
In the 1300s, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military force, in a class with Florence, Venice and Genoa. But weakened by a disastrous plague and conquered by its Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater for six centuries.
Siena’s loss became our sightseeing gain, because its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic-era identity, most notably its great, gorgeous central piazza, the Campo.
People hang out as if at the beach at this tilted shell-shaped “square” of red brick. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.
The Campo gathers around Siena’s city hall, symbol of rational government, and a 330-foot municipal tower (open for climbers).
Nowadays, the city hall tends a museum collection of beautiful paintings (including a knockout work by hometown master Simone Martini). The 14th-century town council met here in the Sala della Pace (“Room of Peace”) under instructive frescoes reminding them of the effects of bad and good government: One fresco shows a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny; the other fresco depicts a utopian republic, blissfully at peace.
If the Campo is the heart of Siena, the Duomo (or cathedral) is its soul. Sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, the white and dark-green striped church is as over-the-top as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics. The heads of 172 popes peer down on all those who enter.
Great art, including Michelangelo statues and Bernini sculptures, fills the church interior. Nicola Pisano carved the wonderful marble pulpit in 1268. It’s crowded with delicate Gothic storytelling. Get up close to study the scenes from the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.
Hiding between the Duomo and the Campo are intriguing back streets, lined with colorful flags and studded with iron rings for tethering horses. Those flags represent the city’s neighborhood associations, whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio, a wild bareback horse race around the Campo (held July 2 and Aug. 16 every year; don’t show up without a hotel reservation if you hope to stay overnight).
Because Siena’s steep lanes go in anything but a straight line, it’s easy to get lost, but there’s no rush to get found. As you wander, you’ll be tempted by Sienese specialties in the shops along the way: gourmet pasta, vintage Chianti, boar prosciutto, extra virgin olive oil and panforte.
It’s especially wonderful to be out and about in Siena in the evening, after the tour groups have left for the day. I like to take advantage of a fun trend in town, the aperitivo hour. Bars tucked here and there attract an early crowd by serving a free buffet of food with the purchase of a drink. It’s a light dinner obtained for the cost of a beverage.
After a quick aperitivo graze, I feel primed and ready to join the passeggiata — the evening stroll. As the Campo fills with people-watchers, I linger near the Renaissance water feature called the Fountain of Joy. Siena’s residents used to gather here to exchange gossip while filling their water jugs.
Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, or write c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.
© 2013 Rick Steves/Tribune Media Services, Inc.