Kalpana Sunder takes in the sights and sounds of a city where the past is still tangible
I remember the burnt Siena in my big box of watercolours when I see the colour of the earth around Siena — Italy's best preserved medieval city. A reddish brown town, Siena has a rich bounty of medieval art and architecture. Narrow streets, steep alleys, and the magnificent Piazza Del Campo make it a Gothic dream. Siena and Florence had many battles for supremacy and, ultimately, Florence had the upper hand. During Siena's golden age, great buildings such as its Duomo were erected; it became a centre of textile, art and trade and had some of Italy's richest banks.
We walk through the medieval contrade, neighbourhoods that the city has been divided into. Each neighbourhood has a mascot by which it is identified, such as a snail, a dragon and also its own patron saint! Petunias smile from window-boxes and colourful laundry hangs over ornate arches. Siena is laid out over the slopes of several hills, and streets rise and fall dramatically testing one's fitness levels. We start our explorations at the Piazza Del Campo, the physical and spiritual heart of Siena. This is a scallop fan-shaped gargantuan square at the heart of town, packed with frenzied tourists sprawled all over, craning their necks trying to absorb all the sights.
The Gothic Town Hall, the focus of this square now, contains the Museo Civico with its walls covered in wonderful frescoes. The Torre Del Mangia bell tower that looks like a periscope is a flight of fantasy in brick and stone! It is named after one of its first bell ringers, and the climb to the top is long and steep. Our local guide tells us that the foundation of the bell tower hall is only several feet deep but the local terrain and lack of rivers has helped the tower not to resemble the one in Pisa. She shows us a picture of the famous Il Palio — a raucous horse race held in this square every July and August fought among the 17 neighbourhoods the town is divided into. This race is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and reserved seating is sold out months in advance!
The Museo Dell Opera Metropolitana contains original treasures from Siena's Duomo. The masterpiece here is Duccio's double-sided altarpiece, Maesta, with 26 gorgeous panels depicting scenes from the Passion and the Madonna and Child surrounded by a host of angels and prophets. Next door is the 12th Century Duomo, with its amazing façade. The Duomo's interior is incredibly unique — black-and-white zebra-striped pillars, cherubs on columns and a blue vaulted dome with gold stars. A spectacular multi-coloured marble flooring covers the entire floor like a gigantic carpet. It is divided into 52 squares and depicts biblical scenes with élan. The Biblioteca Piccolomoni off the left aisle has magnificent bright frescoes in rainbow colours done by Umbrian genius Pinturicchio, helped by his young assistant Raphael! The Duomo is wonderful, but the Sienese people had originally wanted to extend it making it the largest church in the world. Part of the new façade was completed when the Plague of 1348 hit Europe and the city fell into bad times. The extension was never completed.
It's time for lunch and we amble through the narrow core of alleys selling local produce — great Chianti wine, olive oil and the ubiquitous pasta and sun-dried tomatoes! We settle for some wedges of Piazza verdure packed with cheese and vegetables washed down by some local white wine. The drive from Siena to San Gimignano is through the Tuscan countryside, rolling hills, rose-beige farmhouses, a mild drizzle, vines, olives and cypress trees! We stop outside the walled town as vehicles are not allowed inside its medieval centre. San Gimignano, known as the town of the thousand towers, is the medieval Manhattan, a city of soaring towers. This city has been declared a World heritage centre by UNESCO. There used to be more than 70 towers; today a mere 13 towers are left. These were built to store agricultural produce, and also used as a safe refuge. Legend has it that people also built these towers as a show of wealth. We walk through the narrow streets and tall walls, the profusion of cheesy souvenir shops spilling with local wines and the exquisite Santa Fina pottery, and reach the Piazza Del Cisterna.
Time for a gelato
This was once the commercial heart of this town and we settle on the steps of an old octagonal cisterna with a well-deserved melon gelato. San Gimignano is less crowded and touristy than Siena, a really authentic medieval town where the past is tangible. We reach a panoramic spot and catch a glimpse of the scenic Tuscan countryside from there. The afternoon sun paints everything a rich gold and the towers are stunningly silhouetted. For us, it's been a day of marvellous time travel!
PUBLISHED IN THE HINDU METRO PLUS,2009