By Susan Nelson
A night in Siena, Italy
“Traveling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building after seeing Italy.” Samuel Johnson
Like seals on a rock, people lounge across the ‘sand’ of the Piazza del Campo. The bricks of the scallop-shaped piazza are still warm from the day, adding to the sensation of sitting on the beach. Pure bliss is lazing in the sun, soaking up its last rays of the day, steeped in good conversation. The only thing missing is the ocean. It is truly the best of both worlds.
Medieval villas crowd around the outside, casting crenelated shadows across the brickwork in the late afternoon. Children in sandals scamper after pigeons. People stroll through, a dog leash in one hand and gelato in the other. Friends and lovers huddle together enjoying each others company. Siena’s social zone picks up its pace.
Along the edge of the piazza is the promenade with many cafes and restaurants. There is a myriad of tables and chairs for diners and coffee drinkers set out in groups. Street musicians play their music while an entertainer in a red hat teases passersby to the delight of the crowd. The Campo truly is the physical and cultural heart of the city.
Our new friend, Carlos, runs the Ristorante Fonte Gaia. There he is in his white shirt and vest. One morning we helped him set out chairs before opening shop, and since then he has treated us to complimentary cappuccino and treats! What a sweetie…..see what can happen when you rub elbows with the locals?
The red-brick fan of the piazza radiates out from the facade of the Palazzo Pubblico. Spoke-like paving patterns were commissioned in 1349 by Siena’s then ruling committee, the Council of Nine, to symbolize power. It also represents the folds of the Madonna’s Cloak. Since then, it has remained the site for most of Siena’s public events. Executions and bullfights took place here in the medieval era, but fortunately became much friendlier with time by hosting festivals and the world-famous Palio.
Once the site of a Roman Forum and later the central market place, the Campo is steeped in history. Surrounded by buildings that haven’t changed since medieval times, the facade of the Palazzo Pubblico, built in 1288, concave’s inward to accommodate the curve of the Campo. Originally the town hall, today it still houses the town administration. The Torre del Mangia (tower) was built to rival the tower of the neighboring town of Florence. When the Torre del Mangia was built around 1325, it was the tallest structure in Italy at over 290 ft.
The Palio, a breakneck, bareback 90 second horserace, occurs twice a year. Originating from medieval times to represent each of the 17 Contrade of Siena (neighborhoods), it still remains highly competitive. Siena’s pride and joy, it draws a huge crowd. During this time, the Campo is transformed into a racetrack and turns into a dynamic swirl of activity.
Sadly, it’s my last night in Siena….I stand with all my senses working overtime. I don’t want to ever forget the magic of this place. I am polarized between two worlds, the medieval architecture and atmosphere so rare to find, and the culmination of modern-day Italy evidenced by the tourists. The sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feel of this medieval city soak into my being, flooding my mind with colorful memories. Siena, my day at the ‘beach,’ will remain with me always.
About the Author:
Susan is an independent travel writer with expertise in research, history, art history, and culture. She went to Italy for the first time in 2004 and has remained hopelessly infatuated. She loves walking the cobbled streets of Italy and exploring ruins that have existed for thousands of years. Giant aqueducts, earthy catacombs, duomos with first century house churches hidden underneath, mystical legends of the saints — it all takes her breath away.
Photos courtesy of Susan Nelson