Friday, March 13, 2009

Glorious Sienna

A sense of melancholy in leaving Venice was mixed with excitement at the road ahead. My first time at the wheel of a left-hand drive car and what a country to be doing it in - wonderful scenery and crazy drivers!

We sped across the flat of the Po Valley at quite a rate. Things slowed drastically as we climbed the Apennines. Sleet, fog and flailing lorries made the higher most section interesting as the road cut round and through many a mountain. After descending to grand vistas - the type your eyes are involuntarily drawn to even when you should be watching the road - and passing by Florence, we took the minor roads to Sienna. Through rugged valleys and small villages we arrived at the city state of old.
Rising out of the undulating Tuscan countryside and built of rocks of sandy hue, Sienna is a dream of a place. It has many a point of renown. Sienna is said to be founded by Remus, the brother of Romulus and as such the suckling wolf is as symbolic here as in Rome. It is home to the the oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi, and a fascinating historical rivalry with its neighbour, Florence. It was though the feel of the place that captured me. Rarely, if ever, have I been so contently lost in company while wandering the streets of a far off city. At this time of year it is quiet and peaceful. Small winding streets are towered over by high medieval residences. At one point we even had the quintessential old buxom Italian lady hanging clothes from her upper window.
Sienna's highest point is adorned with a magnificent cathedral, planned to be the biggest in the world until funds ran out. A few streets below is the highlight of the city, Il Campo. That literally means "the square", in a modern context a brash and perhaps arrogant name rather like "the man", or indeed "the shit". But my word, like "the Dude" in the Big Lebowski, it more than justifies its lofty title.
I mean, on first sight you just can't believe it. Correct that, on tenth sight you can't believe it. Surrounded by grand buildings and shaped somewhat like a sink, from its zenith it runs down as it narrows to the town hall at the bottom. It is coloured by 9 two-tone-brown contracting sections enclosed by an outer byway. Twice a year this outer ring plays hosts to the wonderfully zany Palio. One of the most famous horse races in the world, it is an old style bareback race between brightly coloured representatives of 10 of the city wards.
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Often brimming with tourists, on this day they were relatively sparse. Come a bit of hale and it emptied further leaving Christina and I perched in the middle with the setting all to ourselves - just one of those moments.

From there we braved the summit of the Torre del Mangia (Christina has vertigo). The fourteenth century bell tower is over 100m high and holds views beyond views.
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The city plunges from its summit in a terracotta tiled flush until it hits the old town walls and lush Tuscan countryside beyond, whose rippled hills take over as far as the eye can see.
A sight I could not top, but back in the car and on to Rome to try...
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