When I visited Italy for the first time in 2012, I planned my trip around three cities in northern Italy: Venice, Florence, and Milan, because I only had 10 days to see everything I wanted to see. While in Florence, I had the option of making a day trip out to the Tuscan countryside, and I was faced with a choice: do I go north to Pisa or south to Siena? This was a choice I had been pondering since stepping onto the train to Milan in Geneva.
I think most people pick Pisa because of the famous Leaning Tower. However, my sister, who had been on a three week tour of Italy a year before me, had told me that Pisa was merely the Leaning Tower and nothing else. I definitely wanted to avoid a situation like this since time was infinitely precious for me on that particular trip.
I picked Siena, and that was probably one of the best decisions I ever made on my Italian trip. So then the question is, what on earth is there to see in Siena?
The Duomo di Siena or the Siena Cathedral
When one goes to Siena, everybody tells you to see the cathedral there. “Magnificent!” They say. “Unbelieveable!” “An incredible work of art!” I was singularly unimpressed by what I considered “typical tourist propaganda”.
You see, all cities in Europe have a cathedral or two, and when I was younger, my parents took my sister and I on a 6 week summer vacation in central Europe. During that vacation, I visited so many castles, palaces, and cathedrals, that I was heartily sick of them all. They all seemed to blend into each other such that my memories of that trip was a jumbled mush of altars, stained glass, and chandeliers.
I tell you this, so you have some perspective when I say that the Siena Cathedral is, hands down, the most impressive Cathedral I have ever seen.
Construction on the Siena Cathedral began in the 12th century, when the town was prosperous. Towns that were rich tended to build large, magnificent churches as a display of wealth and power. Siena, a power in its own right at that time, meant to flex its political and religious muscles by building what they hoped would be the largest cathedral in the world. Construction on the Cathedral was interrupted temporarily by the Black Death when it swept through Europe, and then permanently in the 16th century, when Siena lost a war with the (then) Duchy of Florence, who put a stop to the whole my-cathedral-is-better-than-yours business.
Siena’s Cathedral is still incomplete, but the sheer craftsmanship on display in the alternating black-and-white marble interior, the Biblical mosaics on the floor, the beautifully done stained glass windows, the statuary, often makes me wonder what it would’ve been like had they completed it. As I walked around admiring the craftsmanship, I could see incomplete floor mosaics, with people roughed out, half the mosaic detailed and shaded, the other half waiting for a skilled craftsman to come through with chisel to bring out the hidden scene. Small signs of works in progress permeate the cathedral, and it definitely left me with a sense of what might have been.
The highlight of my trip to Siena was going up to the incomplete portion of the Cathedral for an amazing panorama of Siena and the Tuscan countryside. The weather on the day I chose to go to Siena was simply spectacular, and the views up on the viewing point was simply breath-taking. I would do it again in a heartbeat, and if you ever have the chance, you should not pass this by.
The Historic City Centre of Siena
Something else everybody should see while in Siena is the historic city centre. I didn’t realise it at the time, but it actually is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of how well it has preserved the architecture and the style of medieval Italy. Of course, everybody talks about the Piazza del Campo, a uniquely shell-shaped piazza that is the heart of everything that happens in Siena.
To be pefectly honest, while I enjoyed taking everything in at the city centre, one of the best parts of my day was simply wandering around and soaking in the atmosphere of medieval Europe. Siena was the perfect place to get lost in. We traipsed along its stone-paved streets, meandered up and down the winding alleyways, stopped to gawk at some unexpected statuary, and simply basked in the delight of having been dropped in a time capsule that had taken us back into the 13th century.
I visited Siena in early October, and autumn in Italy is definitely a good time to go. If anybody wants to visit, Siena is well connected. I took the bus from the bus station in Florence. There are many buses that leave regularly for Siena from Florence, and the bus trip itself is a gorgeous drive through the Tuscan countryside. If ever you are in Florence, I strongly encourage you to pay a visit to Siena. You won’t regret it.
Where have you gone that you’d recommend everybody to go visit?