Friday, July 1, 2011

Siena and San Gimignano

This week we had our last tour with the whole group.  We spent Tuesday between Siena and San Gimignano.  Probably my favorite two cities, next to Cinque Terre of course.  We started the day in Siena.  Siena was medieval Florence's  archrival.  Florence eventually won the battle for political and economic superiority, but today Siena competes quite well for the tourists.  In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, Siena used to be a major banking and military power.  It was even bigger than Paris with a population of 60,000.  But in 1348, the plague hit Siena and wiped out over 1/3 of their population.  The city never recovered. In the 1550s, Florence conquered the city.  Fortunately for us, it's political and economic irrelevance managed to freeze Siena in medieval times.   Today, Siena's population is still 60,000 compared with Florence's 420,000.

The old walled city of Siena
We started our guided walking tour of Siena with the Church of San Domenico. Based on the Domenican style, the church is very open and plainly decorated inside except for the flags of Siena's 17 "contradas" or districts.  These include mascots like the goose, the caterpillar, and the porcupine.  But more on this later... back to the church.  The church is dedicated to St. Catherine, patron Saint of Siena.  There are two relics of St. Catherine on display in the church, her right thumb and her head.  Catherine, in the mid-1300s, is credited with convincing the Pope to return from France (the then papal seat) to Rome.

Church of San Domenico
As I mentioned earlier, there are 17 contrada or districts within this ancient city.  Historically, the 17 districts were used to supply military troops, but today districts are simply areas of localised patriotism, held together by the emotions and sense of civic pride of the residents. Their roles have broadened so that every important event – baptisms, deaths, marriages, church holidays, victories at the Palio, even wine or food festivals – is celebrated only within one's own contrada.  Here in the goose contrada, they celebrate the birth of a new baby girl by placing a pink ribbon on the tip of their district flag.  

The goose district announces the birth of a baby girl with a pink ribbon.
 Contrada pride is evident year-round in parades and colorful banners.  However, Contrada passion is most visible twice a year (July 2 and August 16) when the city erupts during its world-famous horse race, the Palio-di-Siena.  Ten of the 17 neighborhoods compete (chosen by rotation and lot).  Jockeys are usually brought in from out of town and considered hired guns. There is also a lot gambling that takes place.  Despite all of the shadiness behind the event, on race day horses are brought into the their contrada's church to be blessed. It's  considered a sign of luck if the horse leaves droppings in the church.   The Palio is run around the main town square, Il Campo.  If you look closely, you can see the temporary railings and the dirt placed on the "track."  The race is 3 laps around the square.  Some of the turns are so sharp there are mattresses placed along the buildings to prevent injury.  A horse may win WITHOUT a rider and this is a good thing since the riders ride bareback and the race is 'no holds barred."  Riders may lash at, punch at, or even knock competing riders from horses. Alliances are formed between the districts, but cost money.  The winning neighborhood receives a Palio or painted banner usually featuring the Virgin Mary since the race is dedicated to her.  But the true prize is proving your contrada is the best and mocking your losing rivals.
Il Camp, scene of the Palio horse race

Siena was interesting both in a physical and cultural way.  The city is trapped in time and many of the cultural events are as well.  Pedestrians rule in the old center of Siena making it easy to take a relaxing stroll.  We did just that...wandering narrow streets lined with colorful flags and large iron rings to tether horses.  Bellissimo!

From Siena, we moved on to another midieval city trapped in time, San Gimignano.  This is the epitome of a Tuscan hill town with 14 medieval towers still standing (out of an original 72).  In the 13th century --back in the days of Romeo and Juliet--feuding noble families ran the town.  They would periodically battle things out from the protection of their respective family towers.
Porta San Gimignano

In the 14th century, San Gimignano's good times turned really bad. guessed it...the Black Plague attacked the city for 6 months.  This left the once mighty town with barely 4,000 survivors.  Like Siena, San Gimignano came under the rule of Florence and Florence redirected the vital trade route away from the town. The town never recovered and poverty left it stuck in a midieval time wartp.  Also, due to its lack of importance, it has survived almost completely in tact in spite of all the European wars.  This well-preserved city scape is ironically responsible for the town's current prosperity.

 The Towers of San Gimignano

And inside this walled city is new treasure, not of gold or silver, but....gelato!  Gelateria Pluripremiata whose master gelato maker has won the offical Gelato World Cup!  Of course we had to sample.  I had pink grapefruit, peach, and sparkling wine.  It was molto buono!  
World famous gelato
 Finally got the whole gang together for this shot outside the walls of San Gimignano.  A little hot and tired...under the tuscan sun...not so much fun in June and July.  Hence the need for gelato!
The whole gang!
Despite the heat and the uphill climbs...why can't they put panoramic views at the bottom of the hill? was another great day.  One of our last in Tuscany.  Check out the link below for more pictures from the trip:

Photo Album

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