Next on our city-state itinerary was Siena, perched high on a Tuscan hillside. It has several claims to fame. Like Florence, its wealth came from banking, not so much trade. However, the city is situated on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage path to Rome. It was a great place for a stopover well away from the mosquito-ridden marshes in the surrounding countryside. Always a plus.
As usual, the bus had to stop outside the town and we had quite a long walk through the city gates up to the town hall and the city square, known as the Campo. Squares don’t have to be square, and this one is more bowl-shaped. It’s an accurate simile because the city’s water supply comes from underground. The water supply was vital for Siena’s prosperity. The hill on which the city is built is full of tunnels carrying water, which was stored in reservoirs guarded by armed men. This excellent article explains how the systems worked. There’s a fountain on the Campo facing the town hall and on each side of the fountain are faucets with potable water. Yes, we drank some.
Our local guide took us along to the cathedral. There, she explained that the marble walls are actually stone clad in marble. The beautiful carvings are hollow, all to reduce weight while still looking spectacular. The cathedral is large, but when the Sienese learned that Pisa was building an even larger cathedral, they decided to expand this one. We were taken to an area now used as a carpark, but the outlines of a massive building are obvious. The intention had been to use the existing cathedral as the nave for a vast new cathedral, double the size of the current building. The project stalled around 1348 because the Black Plague decimated the city, wiping out as much as half of the population.
Siena is also known for the world’s craziest horse race, run twice a year in July and August. We visited the city a few days after the August race and there were still traces of the clay used to cover the Campo for the race. Each horse represents a Contrada, or neighbourhood. In Melbourne you could think Carlton, Fitzroy, Footscray, Hawthorn… sort of like local football teams. Each Contrada gets a horse according to a ballot, and it’s the horse that wins. The jockeys ride bareback and if they fall off (which happens a lot), if the riderless horse wins, it’s the winner. There’s a lot of pomp and circumstance surrounding each race, all with obviously medieval origins. This little video will give you a taste of what it’s all about.
I’ve watched a few videos of the race. The horses look very relaxed and comfortable despite the crowds and the noise. I expect they’re specially trained for the event, rather like police horses. It looks like a fabulous festival, but I think I would hate to be there on the day. Far too many people. And, of course, the horses. Allergies, you know.
It’s a lovely city with lots of narrow (steep) streets to explore. We passed on vsiting the cathedral (All Cathedraled Out) and found a little cafe that sold coffee and gelato. The gelato was magnificent.
After lunch we piled back on the bus and drove to a vineyard, watching a summer storm building up on the horizon. It looked like Montecatini – or the road to get there – might be getting wet. At the winery a nice young woman (why is always young women?) told us all about Chianti. First thing to know – it’s not a wine variety, it’s a district. It’s a bit like saying ‘Barossa Valley’ or ‘Champagne’. This winery made red wine, most of it merlot. We were taken to where the grapes were growing, just in time to see Roberto absconding with a couple of bunches of grapes. I’d always thought wine grapes weren’t all that nice to eat, but I was wrong. I wasn’t the only one to pick a grape or two to taste. They were delicious.
We were given two vintages of wine to taste, one a straight merlot, the other blended with I forget. We also tasted some of the winery’s own extra virgin olive oil, and then we headed back to Montecatini, avoiding the rain.