Sunday, June 8, 2008

Siena and San Gimignano

Without question, Siena is my favorite town. Maybe because I spent a few summers here trying to learn Italian and got to know it better. Or, maybe because one of my favorite friends lives here. Or, maybe because the city is small, beautiful, friendly, safe and well grounded with its heritage. The central focus of the town geographically and culturally is its Piazza del Campo. A large shell shaped piazza surrounded by medieval palaces. Quaint restaurants spill out onto the walkway which outlines the piazza – Until Palio; the central focus of the town in every other way including geographically and culturally. Seventeen neighborhoods designated by their distinct identity such as Giraffe, Rhino, Tower, Unicorns, Wave, Goose, Silkworm, Dragon and more make up this city. Every July 2nd and August 16th, ten of these neighborhoods (or contrade) compete against each other via an astounding 3 minute bareback horse race. Then the entire Piazza is transformed into a race track where an anything goes competition in the fiercest style takes place. The horse which crosses the finish line first (with or without rider) captures the holy grail – the flag known as the Palio. From then on it is proudly displayed in its local community center. Moreover, a win of this race signifies a much greater importance of gaining acceptance into the almighty kingdom – a rebirth, if you will. To fully understand this is to be born and raised in Siena. The rest of us watch in awe of the emotion and dedication to these major events which make up the true pulse of this city.

However, this time we did not come during Palio – so our group arrived at San Domenico Church where the somewhat preserved head of Saint Catherine is actually on display. Saint Catherine of Siena is still alive and well here just the same. Then we strolled along the main streets shopping and visiting the magnificent Duomo which no visit should go without. We all enjoyed lunch in and around the Piazza all agreeing this was a very special place. I do it no justice touching so lightly on the magnificent sightseeing here. Viva Siena.

Another gem of a town on the same day? Why not? We left Siena and journeyed up to San Gimignano stopping at a small winery along the way to sample the well known Vernaccia, a white wine which is only produced in and around Siena. Arriving in San Gimignano is like arriving on a movie set which transports you into medieval times. The streets are long and narrow and now lined with art galleries, shops, enotecas and cafes all of which could easily be a beautiful postcard image. At one time, there were over 70 towers gracing the skyline of this town. Now 14 still stand proudly making its profile very unique. For the average visitor, the two things to see in San Gimignano besides all of its amazing historical structures and artwork are the ceramics shops and gelaterias. Of course we all visited both! Per a recommendation for the best gelato by our trusty driver Daniele, we enjoyed a combination of Pistachio and Zafarano (saffron) – Indeed a heavenly delicious choice. A special place for just a few hours, for all day or for a few days – The nighttime is even a better time to see these towns when all of the day visitors have gone – leaving the more serious visitor to stroll along the now quiet streets of these two very special hill towns.

No comments: