To say that relations between Florence and Siena have been strained for some time is truly a dir poco (to say little). They spent most of the Middle Ages at war fighting for control of Tuscany. Eventually the Florentine troops, backed by the powerful Medici’s, won that war, but in modern times Siena appears to be winning a new contest – the claim to be Tuscany’s most beautiful city.
One of the things that adds to Siena’s charms is the way the countryside – olive groves and vineyards – comes right to the walls of the medieval centre.
Whatever the official outcome of this latest battle, and as much as I love Florence, in the last few years Siena has grown on me. With all that art, and all those tourists and street vendors in Florence’s tiny historic centre it’s easy to end up, if not quite stricken with Stendhal Syndrome – a psychosomatic disorder that causes rapid heartbeat, dizziness, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations (!), first experienced by the 19th century French author, Stendhal, while gazing on Florence’s art – at least longing for a little less. Of everything.
One thing I’m sure even the most ardent fans of Florence will agree on is that, of the two, Siena has the more beautiful piazza – perhaps even the most beautiful in Italy.
And no matter from which direction you approach the piazza, there is always lots to see along the way.
You can’t go far in Siena without going up and down a few hills. One night as I was enjoying an aperitivo of Vernaccia at one of the bars around the margins of the piazza, I overheard a tourist talking about a wine tasting he and his companions were going on the next day. “I wonder how many hills we’ll have to climb. I don’t think we believe him (the guide) anymore.”
The symbol of Siena is the She-wolf suckling the twin brothers, Romulus and Remus. According to legend, when the twin brothers were all grown up, they rode off astride black and white steeds to fulfill their destiny. Romulus founded Rome and Senius, the son of Remus founded… Siena.
In medieval times, banchi – ban-key – (market tables) lined the two alleys that encircle the piazza – one of the alleys is on a slightly higher level so it was called Via Banchi di Sopra (above) and the other was called Via Banchi di Sotto (under). If the owner of a table did not pay the rent for the space his table occupied, or as sometimes happened, competition for customers got out of hand, thugs would smash the offender’s table, leaving the poor wretch with a banco rotto, (broken table) from where we get ‘bankrupt’.
As I continued towards one of the narrow passageways that open on to the piazza, I began to hear an astonishing sound.