In the morning I go to the Galleria Accademia, where I see a lot of pretty intense art, as well as some beautiful sculpture. Michelangelo’s David is the highlight, of course – it really is mesmerising. It takes me a long time to get round the Accademia, and by the time I get round to recounting it in this blog, whilst sat in a square in Siena, it feels like it was a very long time ago.
The Accademia is the last thing I do in Florence, before collecting my bag from the hotel and catching the bus to Siena. I felt that I should really get to Siena before the evening, since my hotel is outside the city, a bus ride away, nestled amongst the Tuscan hills. I don’t particularly want to try and find it in the dark.
On the bus ride I mainly read the Daily Express, which reminds me why, at home, I never read the Daily Express. I am also thinking, hmm, Tuscany. A bit like Yorkshire.
The Historic Centre of Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it is clear why. The streets are narrow, and cobbled – it is like the Ghetto in Rome, but a whole (tiny) city of it. If I thought parts of Florence were medieval fairytale-esque, they have nothing on Siena. The centre is also full of festivity – huge silver stars are strung everywhere, above the tourists as they squeeze down the tiny streets. Siena is the most festive place I think I’ve ever been (possibly aside from Whitley’s Garden Centre, Mirfield).
I go to check out Piazza del Campo, followed by the Duomo. Both are breathtaking. They look like settings from an over exaggerated Disney film. Here they are. See what I mean?
Afterwards I go to a restaurant at Piazza del Campo and get pizza – again. I don’t meet any random friends tonight, sadly, but it’s ok because I feel like getting back to the hotel and being cosy (Alberto was right, Siena is freezing).
Unfortunately, so is my room. Bizarrely, it has shutters that won’t open. When I checked in I took a photograph of the view from between the gaps:
Here is the view from outside:
I get under a blanket and fall asleep straight away, and then am woken up at what I am surprised to find is only 11.30pm by my mother, who is ringing to check that I am still alive. I assure her that I am, and then immediately fall back to sleep. Tomorrow: further exploring of Siena.
I dispense with the map and have a wander on Friday morning. Beautifully and completely by accident, I stumble upon a food market at the bottom of a windy path. There are samples everywhere; I feast on cheese, pork, and bruschetta despite only just having had breakfast. I want to buy some cheese, but resist since I’m fairly sure the fridge will be full of festive formaggi when I get home a week before Christmas. Instead I purchase two jars of chutney, one spicy pear and one spicy peach. I feel very festive. I am so, so paying excess baggage to Jet2 next week.
My first official stop is Siena Cathedral – the Duomo. It is without a doubt the best cathedral I have ever seen, probably because it is so different. The columns inside are black and white; they make me think of a fifteenth century jester’s tights. It is all very medieval. I feel like I’m in an Italian version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
There are a lot of interesting things about the cathedral. On the left wall, amongst statues of various other saints, is a depiction of Saint Paul that has been attributed to Michelangelo. Next to Saint Paul is an image of the Virgin with child – a typical picture, at first glance. There are thousands of them, all over Italy. But no, at second glance it becomes clear that she is breastfeeding. The Virgin Mary, boob out. This is crazy.
On the floor there is, in marble, a depiction of the She-Wolf of Siena. The image could easily be mistaken for the She-Wolf of Rome, as it is almost identical – but, the audio guide informs me, a different set is twins is present here. They are Senius and Aschius, sons of Remus, who fled from Rome to avoid the anger of their uncle Romulus, and went on to found Siena. On the founding of the city, they sacrificed a wolf. Black and white were decided as they colours of the new city, hence why the inside the cathedral is largely monochrome. The legend of the She-Wolf of Siena, being nothing to do with Italy’s capital, is obviously less well known than the story of Rome’s founding.
I also find out that the cathedral itself was originally built in around 1000, but that it was rebuilt in medieval times to such an extent that none of the original remains. There are around 170 busts around the ceiling of the cathedral, below the stained glass windows. All of them are Popes from across the centuries, from the cathedral’s beginnings to the end of the 1500s.
I am in the cathedral for quite a long time. Afterwards I decide, because I feel that I should whilst I am here, to climb to the top of the tower in Piazza del Campo. I had gone in earlier, before I returned to the Duomo, and found that the climb was not advised for those suffering from claustrophobia, or, I imagine, a fear of heights.
But I climbed the Dome in Florence so now I decide to be fearless.
To a certain extent, anyway. I climb the standard 400 steps, but I decide to stay away from the rickety wooden stairs that lead to the very, very top. A sign at the bottom of them says that, in parts, they are ‘exposed to the elements’. Why would anyone inflict this upon themselves? There is no need for this. I have a good enough view after 400 steps. I stay exactly where I am.
After the long climb back down, during which I almost trip and twist my ankle, I sit in Piazza del Campo and read my map whilst drinking an espresso. I had previously written down that I should visit the Sanctuary of Saint Catherine of Siena, so this is where I head now. On the way I stop at a beautiful candle shop where a couple of women are crafting away with hot wax, and purchase a candle moulded into the shape of an owl.
The Sanctuary of Saint Catherine is basically a small church, but it is set high up in the winding Sienese streets and offers a lovely view. Here is Saint Catherine herself, guarding the entrance to her casa, and the panorama of Siena that I found around the corner when I visited the Basilica of San Domenico:
The Gothic Basilica of San Domenico, just around the corner from Catherine’s sanctuary, is stuffed full of art. I read that it dates from the 13th and 14th centuries, and since then has survived 15th and 16th century fires, a 16th century military occupation, and various 18th century earthquakes.
The view of Siena from outside it is a beautiful way to end my visit.
It is going up to 4 o’clock; I have to get the bus, pick up my bag from the hotel, get back on the bus, find some food to sustain me for the journey and locate the stop for the cross country SITA bus before it’s departure for Rome at 6pm.
I leave Hotel Vico Alto, and as I am waiting at the bus stop and taking photographs of the view, an old Italian man appears and tells me, in Italian, that I have a beautiful hat. It is a nice hat, purchased from La Chieve in Largo Argentina (thanks mother!), but still, how very surreal. I thank him. His tiny Chinese wife looks confused.
And so, back to Rome. I am restless on the journey. I’m tired, and am not anticipating a late night change of metro from Tiburtina. As soon as I’m on the bus I want it to go faster towards the capital and the hotel and Alphabet House. My Bronte Myth book (by Lucasta Miller, weirdly) does not hold my interest. For a lot of the time I just stare out of the window, trying to distinguish shapes in the darkness.
The journey (three hours) feels overly long. Just outside Rome, I start to notice women stood at the side of the road. The first one I see is texting, from a lay-by. I think how unfortunate it is that her car has broken down in this particularly grim location. And then I see another women. And another. The third one I see is wearing bright red, patent leather boots. And it is at this point that I realise they are in fact engaging in the oldest profession in the world. This is extremely disturbing. They are touting for business on the main autostrada into Rome. And five minutes later, the bus drops me off at probably the most dangerous looking station I have ever seen in my life.
My advice on Roma Tiburtina Autostazione is this: avoid it as if it were a Florentine plague.
Unless of course you enjoy being surrounded by litter, homeless people and questionable taxi drivers touting for business whilst you search for a metro station that just doesn’t seem to be around.
I am relieved when I find it, and even more relieved when, half an hour later, I let myself into Alphabet House dump my bags on the floor. Shower. Bliss. I then get into bed without even drying my hair. Sacrilege in Italy!