Il Campo is Siena’s main square and gathering place. Rick Steves says it’s the best piazza in all of Europe. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Il Campo is Siena’s main square and gathering place. Rick Steves says it’s the best piazza in all of Europe. (Rick Steves’ Europe)

Rick Steves on the Tuscan town of Siena, Italy’s medieval soul

It’s been a backwater since the 14th century — and that’s a big reason why it’s so worth visiting today.

As we’ve had to postpone our travels because of the pandemic, I believe a weekly dose of travel dreaming can be good medicine. Here’s one of my favorite European memories from Siena — a reminder of the fun that awaits us at the other end of this crisis.

Stretched across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers perhaps Italy’s best medieval experience. Courtyards sport flower-decked wells, churches modestly share their art, and alleys dead-end into red-tiled rooftop panoramas. This is a city made for strolling. With its stony skyline and rustic brick lanes tumbling every which way, the town is an architectural time warp, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.

Today, the self-assured Sienese remember their centuries-old accomplishments with pride. 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 — and it’s been one ever since. Siena’s loss became the traveler’s gain, as its political and economic irrelevance preserved its Gothic identity.

This is most notable in Il Campo, where I begin my stroll. At the center of town, this great shell-shaped piazza, featuring a sloped red brick floor fanning out from the City Hall tower, is designed for people, offering the perfect invitation to loiter. Il Campo immerses you in a world where troubadours stroke guitars, lovers stroke one another’s hair and bellies become pillows. It gets my vote for the finest piazza in all of Europe.

Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but Il Campo gathers Siena’s citizenry around its City Hall, with its skyscraping municipal tower. Catching my breath after climbing to the dizzying top of the 100 yard tall bell tower, I survey the view and think of the statement this campanile made. In Siena, kings and popes took a back seat to the people, as it was all about secular government, civic society, and humanism.

The public is welcome inside the City Hall where, for seven centuries, instructive frescoes have reminded everyone of the effects of good and bad government. One fresco shows a utopian republic, blissfully at peace; the other fresco depicts a city in ruins, overrun by greed and tyranny.

But the Church still has its place. If Il Campo is the heart of Siena, the Duomo is its soul — and my next destination. A few blocks off the main square, sitting atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, this white and dark-green-striped cathedral is as ornate as Gothic gets. Inside and out, it’s lavished with statues and mosaics, including works by Michelangelo and Bernini. The stony heads of nearly 2,000 years of popes — that’s over 170 so far — ring the interior, peering down from high above on all those who enter.

Trying to escape the crowds in the cathedral and on the main square, I venture away from the city center. I get lost on purpose in Siena’s intriguing back streets, studded with iron rings for tethering horses and lined with colorful flags. Those flags represent the city’s contrade (neighborhoods), whose fierce loyalties are on vivid display twice each summer during the Palio, a wild bareback horse race that turns Il Campo into a thrilling and people-packed racetrack.

Wandering further into the far reaches of the city, I’m tempted by Sienese specialties in the shops along the way: gourmet pasta, vintage Chianti, boar prosciutto and the city’s favorite treat: panforte.

Panforte is Siena’s claim to caloric fame. This rich, chewy concoction of nuts, honey, and candied fruits impresses even fruitcake haters. Local bakeries claim their recipe dates back to the 13th century. Some even force employees to sign nondisclosure agreements to ensure they won’t reveal the special spice blend that flavors their version of this beloved — and very dense — cake.

A key to enjoying Siena is to imagine it in its 14th century heyday while taking advantage of today’s modern scene. After chewing on a chunk of panforte, I decide to linger here into the evening, after the tour groups have boarded their buses and left town.

I duck into a bar for aperitivo (happy hour), which includes a free buffet — a light dinner for the cost of a cocktail. Now I’m primed and ready to join the passeggiata — an evening stroll. I time my arrival back at Il Campo to savor that beautiful twilight moment when the sky is a rich blue dome, no brighter than the proud Siena towers that seem to hold it high.

Edmonds resident Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours. This article was adapted from his new book, “For the Love of Europe.” You can email Rick at rick@ricksteves.com and follow his blog on Facebook.

Talk to us

More in Life

The Gothard Sisters will perform at the Tim Noah Thumbnail Theater on Sept. 19 in Snohomish. From left, Greta, Solana and Willow Gothard. (Ruth Vanden Bos)
Edmonds’ Gothard Sisters return to stage with new original music

The trio’s songs include one inspired by an Old West legend. You can hear them Sept. 19 in Snohomish.

Quinn Fitzgerald
New hosts take the reins at Everett’s weekly comedy showcase

Adam Tiller and Quinn “Lil’ Q” Fitzgerald now host the Monday-night stand-up sessions at Tony V’s in Everett.

Andy Bronson / The Herald
The Tokyo Classic burger is the most popular menu item at Katsu Burger, because it’s the most like an American burger, business owner Hannah Ha says.
Now you can make Katsu Burger’s best-selling burger at home

Chef-owner Hannah Ha of the Lake Stevens store says the Tokyo Classic is the most popular menu item.

A tray of grilled delights; clockwise from top right, Cheeseburgers, Mustard-Lime Steak, Tandoori Chicken, and Grilled Asparagus With Olive Oil and Parmesan, on Wednesday, August 11, 2021. (Colter Peterson/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)
Make it count: We have one last weekend of summertime grilling

There’s still time for you to grill asparagus, cheeseburgers, tandoori chicken and mustard lime steaks.

Chicken thighs braised in hard cider with Brussels sprouts and apples makes an easy one-pan fall dinner. (Gretchen McKay/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/TNS)
Eat This: Cider-braised chicken with apples and Brussels sprouts

Braising the chicken in hard cider — the alcohol cooks off — amplifies its seasonal flavor and adds a subtle sweetness.

Cathy Richardson is lead vocalist of Jefferson Starship, which is scheduled to perform Sept. 17 at the Historic Everett Theatre. (Associated Press)
All about music: Schedule of concerts around Snohomish County

The listings include Sir Mix-a-Lot, ZZ Top and Bands, Brews and Bowling at Evergreen Lanes in Everett.

Ian Terry / The Herald

Christa and Richard Porter, of The Porters, play a set at the Black Lab Gallery during the Fisherman's Village Music Festival in Everett on Friday, March 31, 2017.

Photo taken on 03312017
Where to hear live music in Snohomish County nightclubs

The listings include Engel’s Pub, Mirkwood Public House and Port Gardner Bay Winery shows.

The 2022 Kia Carnival has front-wheel drive, three rows, and placing for seven or eight passengers, depending on seat configuration. (Kia) 20210913
Kia replaces Sedona minivan with all-new 2022 Carnival MPV

Do similarities to the brand’s current boxy SUVs justify the new nomenclature? Kia says yes.

This delicious--and labor intensive--strawberry salad with Dungeness crab was worth the drive to The Loft, in Poulsbo. (Jennifer Bardsley)
Are you vaccinated and ready to dine out? Not so fast

Here are six things to consider — all due to labor shortages — before you visit your favorite restaurant.

Most Read