Siena: Tuscany's "city of locals", filled with historic charm

Photo of Gemma Nisbet

Described as the embodiment of a medieval Italian city, Siena's historic atmosphere has made it a major tourist attraction — but local life and culture is also going strong. 

“Oh my God!” It’s an exclamation that would have prompted one of the more devout teachers at my Anglican high school to emerge from her office and wonder aloud if there was “someone out here praying”. But in this case, it’s a sincerely enthusiastic — if somewhat blasphemous — expression of wonder at seeing Siena Cathedral for the first time.

The cathedral is certainly an impressive sight, with its elaborate marble facade encrusted with statuary and decoration, from the large bronze door to the gleaming mosaics in the gables. The interior is renowned for being equally arresting, with its greenish-black and white marble, gilded dome and sculptures by masters including Donatello, Bernini and Michelangelo.

They’ll have to wait for now, though, as we continue on through Piazza del Duomo, past Santa Maria della Scala — one of Europe’s first hospitals and now a museum. Around the side of the cathedral, our Trafalgar local tour guide Agnese points out its distinctive striped bell tower, as well as the incomplete walls extending from its sides — the remainders of enlargement works begun in the 14th century but later abandoned. They’re also a reminder of the wealth once concentrated in Siena, as it rose to become a financial and trading centre during its medieval golden age. 

It’s perhaps partly for this reason that the city centre is, as Agnese puts it, “paralysed in medieval times”. So well preserved are its narrow streets and historic buildings that it was World Heritage listed in 1995, and described by UNESCO as “the embodiment of a medieval city”. This historical charm has made Siena a major tourist attraction, particularly with daytrippers from nearby Florence. Despite this, away from the main squares and the busy knot of streets that connect them, it’s possible to find peace as local life — someone hanging their laundry from a window, people stopping into the tabacchi for a lottery ticket — goes on around you.

Indeed, Agnese tells us, Siena remains “a city of locals”. One of the most intriguing aspects of its culture is the system of contrade, or wards, which dates from medieval times. Originally set up to supply troops to defend Siena against city-state rivals, including its great foe Florence, the contrade today are like cities within the city. Each has its own flag and symbol (usually an animal), and its own historical associations, allegiances and rivalries, and sense of hyper-local pride. “The contrada is our family, that’s what we say,” Agnese says.

Though the contrade once numbered more than 50, today only 17 survive. In the centre of Siena, we pass through Aquila, which has its namesake — an eagle — as its symbol, and Selva, represented by a rhinoceros. Each July and August, 10 of the contrade are represented in the city’s famous Palio, a rough-and-tumble horserace in which jockeys ride bareback around the Piazza del Campo.

Arriving at the latter is a sensation not unlike seeing Siena Cathedral for the first time. We emerge quite suddenly from the narrow, shady streets down into the bright, open space of the square, the gothic red-brick crenellations of the Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall, dominating one side. Groups of schoolchildren and visitors congregate on the sloping, roughly semi-circular piazza. At its edges, people sit in the sunshine at cafe tables. 

Standing sentinel over the scene is the palazzo’s elegant 102m bell tower, the Torre del Mangia. “Mangia”, of course, means “eat” in Italian — an odd name for a piece of civic architecture so important it’s said to have been built to appear to be the same height as the cathedral’s bell tower, to demonstrate the equal importance of church and state. The name is apparently a reference to the tower’s first bellringer, who was known as Mangiaguadagni, a nickname that suggests both poor money management and gluttony (it roughly translates to “earnings eater”).

Within the walls of the Torre del Mangia are some 400 steps winding a steep and narrow path to its summit. The promise of the views — not to mention the chance to burn off the panino I ate for lunch — convince me to part with €10 for the privilege.

When I reach the top of the tower, hot and puffing, I’m greeted by a 360-degree panorama over the square and across the city to the cathedral. It’s windy and surprisingly crowded up here but the view is extraordinary — every bit as complex and engaging in its detail as the facade of the cathedral, but with the added satisfaction of having laboured to appreciate it. 

There’s the orange of the rooftops, with their dusting of satellite dishes and skylights, the green of the countryside, the denim-blue of the hills. Far below us are the clumps of people in the square, their lazy lunchtime imbued with a new grandeur by the scale. 

On the way down, I pass an Italian teenager coming in the opposite direction, straggling at the back of a ground of friends. “Dio mio,” she puffs, pausing to catch her breath. I want to tell her: save it til you get to the top.

Fact File


Gemma Nisbet visited Italy as a guest of Trafalgar.


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