Siena and our last day in Tuscany

Written by Jack on April 25, 2014
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For our last day in Tuscany we decided to scratch one more tourist destination off our list. We chose Siena over Florence as the smaller city is heavily pedestrian-only and we felt it to be less daunting with the boys. We were quite happy with our pick and the hour long drive was pleasant, though detoured by construction.

The name “Siena” comes from the latin root for “old”, which was fitting. The city looked and felt very old, while having the benefit of being significantly more maintained than Lucca (in our opinion).

The back side of Siena Big old door

We made it the Siena Cathedral (Duomo) first, which left us standing quite stunned. The duomo was bigger, more intricate, and more colorful than any building we’d seen yet in Italy. Finished in 1263, the cathedral is a combination of French Gothic, Roman, and Classical architecture styles, which sets it apart from just about everything else as wholly unique. The entire fa├žade is covered in intricate sculptures and portals depicting scrolls, mythical creatures, and biblical scenes.

Siena Duomo Detail shot of the cathedral

The workmanship didn’t stop there of course. We acquired tickets and went inside to have a look. The interior is absolutely striking, with massive black and white striped columns supporting a golden hexagonal dome and wider nave, which in turn was surrounded with 172 pope busts dating back to the 15th century. There must have been a priest hidden in an alcove somewhere because every now and then, when the noise level grew too loud, we would hear a “Shhhhhh…” echo from secret speakers high in the room.

Stained glass entry Popes! Definition of a great hall The dome

History was oozing out of this place and we could have spent three days reading (and translating from Latin) every placard and sign if we had the time. We explored the great hall/sanctuary as thoroughly as possible before ducking off into a side room to see the Piccolomini Library. This library housed precious illuminated choir books and frescoes reaching from wall to ceiling and back again, painted by the Umbrian Bernardino di Betto (called Pinturicchio). These frescoes were apparently based on designs by Raphael (the ninja turtle). They were stunning, and according to a thing I read, have never had the need to be restored since they were first painted, well over 500 years ago.

The Piccolomini Library

We then swung around behind the cathedral and into the back of the duomo to see the separate baptistry, residing under the eastern choir bays. The room was small but covered end-to-end in frescoes and hung paintings. The acoustics in the room were pretty wild. All sound was muffled, nothing quite “echoed”, but rather the sound “rolled” continuously, as if a group of nuns were gossiping in large numbers, hidden in a corner somewhere.

The baptistry Ceiling frescoes in the baptistry

Afterwards we worked our way down to the Piazza del Campo, the enormous shell-shaped plaza in the center of the city, the setting for the twice-annual Palio di Siena bareback horse race. The tower overlooking the piazza, the Torre del Mangia, is by far the tallest building in the city and is the 3rd largest medieval tower in all of Italy. A fun bit of trivia: there is actually a replica tower in Connecticut.

The Piazza del Campo The backside of the tower

We ate lunch in the piazza and returned later in the afternoon for gelato and a break from walking. It was quite the place to be, as crowds pushed their way from many of the steep streets that emptied out into the square.

Back in Tuscany we headed out to our favorite restaurant in the area for one last delicious meal, only to find it all booked up. I swear, we will never figure out the right way to plan for dinner out in Italy. It’s so confusing. We did wind up finding a little place nearby with a surprisingly great view of the setting sun, and enjoyed a scrummy dinner. I even had my first taste of real Italian white truffles, and I must say, I was a fan.

White truffles

Tomorrow we’re off to the Amalfi coast for our very last stop on this journey, Positano. Jen and I are both just about ready to head home, but the Mediterranean is calling and we will answer, happily.