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Jill McCracken’s Travel Diary

Saturday, 19 Feb 2011

Location: Tuscany, Italy

MapTour of Tuscany -SIENNA

SIENNA - We found a brochure for a Tour of Tuscany and jumped on the idea. We left Florence fairly early and our guide explained a couple of the sights on our way out of the city. Along the route we were just in awe of the rolling hills, olive groves and rows of grape bushes. Even without fruit you could imagine the lushness that this area has to offer during the summer months!

Our first stop was Sienna, a proud city that rose to wealth as a banking centre because they were not attached to a river. Piazza del Campo is a large open square in the centre of town that was shaped like a sea-shell, there is such a slope that there is a "plug" at the bottom of the basin to catch the rainwater. The layout of the fake-square is set up to that architecture softens the acoustics. It was sort of eerie, we could see hundreds of people around but the square was almost silent. This is where we learned that the Palio horse-race is run each year. The square is covered with sand and lined with mattresses during the races to prevent injuries. Contrada culture is that there are 17 districts in Sienna and each gets a horse to train for the race. There are all of these superstitions that go along with the race, the horses are taken to their district's church to be blessed before the race, and if they poop in the church apparently that's a sign of good luck. We couldn't get the image out of our heads of hundreds of Italians packed into a church waiting for a horse to poop, or not poop....what a laugh! This horse race is the most important thing in Sienna and they plan the entire year around two minutes in July and August, which is baffling. Our guide told us about how much trickery and manipulation that occurs between the rival districts of Sienna. Nothing is out of the question, save for eye-gouging I think. The jockeys can whip each other and the other horses if they want to, it can get quite violent!! Often the jockeys are bribed or beaten by rival districts and horses can be stolen or drugged the day of the race. The Siennese swear that it is all in good fun! Check out this video of the action:

Siena was also home to the first public hospital in the Western World so it became a stop on many's route to salvation. We walked through the windy streets and stopped at a lookout to see the church where Sainte Catherine is buried (well, just her head and thumb). The city is full of hills so I was glad I brought my running shoes. All of the buildings are this sort of red clay with green shutters (the reddish brown colour is obviously "Sienna". It was a city of immediate charm: the buildings seemed sort of thrown together in various colours (reds, pinks and this deep butter yellow I really liked), which was a nice contrast to the uniformity of Paris.

It apparently took 200 years to build the Santa Maria Assunta Cathedral, across from the hospital (Santa Maria Della Scala), which was founded in 1019. All of the major Florentine and Italian artists assisted with the intricate mosaic floor of the cathedral, it had about 6 or 7 different colours of marble in it! The vaults were painted a midnight blue and had little gold stars everywhere, it was quite the optical illusion. The library was my favourite part of the church though. Pope Pius III created it to hold books from his uncle's estate but the books were never shipped so the room was never finished. There were these amazing frescoes on the ceiling, absolutely gorgeous! It turns out that they have no records that the frescoes have ever been restored, which still baffles arts historians today. Since the room was kept locked up and never used (who uses a library when there aren't any books?) the paintings kept their integrity for hundreds of years. Named the Librario Piccolomini (the Pope's "other" name) it has been chilling there since 1495. Honestly, the marble facades are so elaborate that they are almost gaudy, even Liberace would have said "Whoa, chill out with the marble!!" The white and black marble is mined in Tuscany but the pink and yellow was often shipped in from other locales. I think I remember the guide saying that yellow marble is hard to come by now.... My butt hurt from climbing the hills in Sienna but I was happy to continue on to our lunch in Chianti!