Inspiration always seems to find me when I’m not looking and that is exactly what happened as I settled in to watch a few minutes of television last night. Lucky for me, I clicked over to Kenny Mayne’s Wider World of Sports, a show on ESPN that puts sports into a cultural context.
One of the segments was on the Palio, the famous, twice-yearly horse race in Siena. Mayne gained insider access to the Leocorno (Unicorn) contrada to cover the race from mane (ahem) to tail. We learn about Leocorno’s rivalry with the Civetta (Owl) contrada, the pre-race ritual of having the horse blessed in the district church, and the strategies and intrigue that go into competing in one of Italy’s oldest sports traditions. Both the footage and the commentary in this segment were compelling, so I wanted to share the video with you.
On the other side of the Chianti countryside, some 35 miles south of Florence, you will find Siena, a Tuscan town rife with tradition and mood.
WHERE: Medieval Siena is best known as the site of the Palio, a twice-yearly, bareback horserace that takes place in the wide, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. The race, which can be traced as far back as the early 13th century, pits a rotating roster of 10 of the city’s 17 contrade (neighborhoods) against one another. Run on July 2 and August 16, the Palio is Siena’s most famous local event, which today draws scads of spectators from all over Italy and abroad. Indeed, the Palio is a hot ticket: Learn how to book tickets for the Palio.
Post pageantry, Siena is a gloriously Gothic prize for pedestrians; the compact city center is car-free and quiet enough to hear the cobblestones resonate underfoot.
WHAT TO DO: In addition to the Palio, Siena’s cityscape awes, with art and architecture around every bend. The tight warren of shadowy streets empties into Piazza del Campo, one of the finest medieval squares in Europe. Divided into nine sectors–a nod to the Council of Nine who ruled the city during the Middle Ages–the shell-shaped piazza serves as a meeting point, playground, and outdoor dining venue.
At the base of the shell lies the Palazzo Pubblico, a result of Siena’s construction boom in the late 13th and early 14th centuries. The Humanist “palace of the people” houses two masterpieces by native son Simone Martini and an amusing fresco series depicting good and bad government practices.
Next door to the Palazzo Pubblico rises the Torre del Mangia, which, at the height of 330 feet, is one of the tallest bell towers in Italy. Climb the 505 steps to the top and enjoy the views of rooftops and the Campagna Senese (Sienese countryside).
Also within view from the tower is Siena’s spectacular Duomo, a massive, black-and-white striped cathedral renowned for its interior pavements. The pavements are usually unveiled in their entirety in September. However, a small portion of the 56 floor panels featuring sybils, angels, saints, and biblical scenes, are visible to viewers on a rotating basis throughout the year.
Finally, if you want to endear yourself to some of the locals, pay a visit to one—or several—of Siena’s 17 contrada museums. On proud display are banners, relics, and costumes from Palio contests of yore. The tourist office in Piazza del Campo can provide you a map to each neighborhood. For a really good explanation of the contrade, their history, and what’s on view in their museums, see this article of Siena’s Contrada Museums from In Italy Online.
LODGING: There are tons of agriturismo (farm stay) inns and self-catering options on the outskirts of Siena, ideal if you’re touring Tuscany by car. Retreat to the well-appointed Hotel Santa Caterina (Via Enea Silvio Piccolomini, 7), which is set just outside the Porta Romana, or stay in Villa Scacciapensieri (Strada di Scacciapensieri, 10), a country hotel north of town where you can “forget your troubles” by enjoying vistas of the rooftops and towers Siena as well as the surrounding valley. If you want to stay in town, consider Hotel Duomo (Via Stalloreggi, 38) because its upper floors offer rooftop views.
DINING: Siena’s culinary landscape reflects its rustic roots: think roasted meats, lots of herbs, and simple peasant fare. But the city is also home to a university, so cheap eats and wine bars abound. Osteria Le Logge (Via del Porrione, 33), changes its menu daily, and offers more than a dozen options for lunch and dinner. Osteria La Sosta di Violante (Via di Pantaneto, 115) serves up traditional fare in a casual atmosphere a few blocks from Piazza del Campo. Primi piatti, such as ravioli with red chicory, start at around $16. An enoteca (wine bar) option is Trombicche (Via delle Terme, 66), which offers good wine by the glass, tasting platters of salumi, cheeses, and antipasti (ideal for a snack), and a convivial atmosphere.
GETTING THERE: Fly into Rome’s Fiumicino Airport or Pisa’s Galileo Galilei Airport. If you take the train from either of these destinations to Siena, the trip will last approximately two to three hours, with at least one connection on the way. A better bet is to rent a car from the airport. The A1 autostrada is a direct route from Rome to Florence; Siena is about halfway between the two cities. The SS-222 from Florence to Siena provides a more scenic route past the olive groves and vineyards of Chianti.
INFORMATION: For more ideas about what to do and where to stay and eat in Siena, see the Siena Tourism website.
We hope you’ve had an enjoyable August. Obviously, we took a little time off for rest and relaxation (and a move!), so there’s been little time to fill you in on some of the latest Italy travel news. Here’s a recap:
Some people in Rome think it’s a good idea to create a Disneyland-like theme park outside the city. Could this possibly be a good idea? I can’t imagine Italians wanting to pay money for a bit of Italian-style Americana in their backyard, nor can I see tourists skipping the real Roman tourist attractions to see another Euro-Disney. Yuck.
On August 16, the Bruco contrada won Siena’s Palio Horserace. Congratulations, Caterpillar! Lots of Palio history and trivia here.
And, some art news caught our attention. In Rome, through September 7, looted Roman antiquities that have recently been returned to Italy will be on display at the Palazzo Poli (near the Trevi Fountain). And, beginning on September 7, those interested in Etruscan art and relics should head to Cortona, where Etruscan art from the Hermitage will be on loan to the Museo dell’Accademia Etrusca e della Città di Cortona (MAEC).
We should be getting back on track this week, so stay tuned!
In my opinion, Financial Times columnist Jancis Robinson provides some of the best, most accessible coverage of wine anywhere. This past weekend, in the FT Life & Arts Section, Robinson looks at the 2006 vintage of Chianti Classico as “something to celebrate.” Apparently, this is the first year that “white wine grapes have been outlawed” from the making of Chianti Classico. Indeed, up until 2006, Chianti was a blend of white (mostly Trebbiano) and red (mostly Sangiovese) grapes. Robinson gives an interesting primer on the former and current production of Chianti – the wine made in the mini-region between Florence and Siena – and also makes suggestions for the best Chianti buys.
Here are her picks:
Taste of Tuscany: Classic Classicos
RECOMMENDED 2006s ?Badia a Coltibuono
Principe Corsini, Le Corte (£)
San Fabiano Calcinaia
SUPERIOR 2005s ?Castello di Ama
?Castello di Meleto (£)
?Casanuova di Nittardi
A GOOD VALUE 2004 ?Il Poggiolino (£)
?denotes a particularly traditional, lively style
(£) denotes especially good value
You can learn more about these wines from winesearcher.com and a few are available for purchase from wine.com and mywinesdirect.com.
According to TripAdvisor, by way of Italy Magazine, the Tuscan town of Siena ranks 5th among the most-visited cities in Europe. No doubt, one of its allures is the twice-annual Palio, which takes place on July 2 and August 16.
This year’s first installment kicks off tomorrow (!) and you can watch a live feed (!!) from Piazza del Campo (the main square) on the official Palio website (in the left column, click on “Palio 2 luglio 2008 – video e diretta,” then on the following page “Diretta dalla Piazza.” We’re unsure if the live feed will be available during the race itself, but you could give it a try.
We are pleased to announce that the 4th edition of The Unofficial Guide to Central Italy: Florence, Rome, Tuscany & Umbria arrives in stores – and is available for shipment from Amazon – today! Like previous editions, this UGCI has the best information about travel in Tuscany, Lazio, Umbria, and the Marches (Le Marche). But it also has updates on restaurants, hotels, planning your trip, and more. We hope that you will consider buying this guide for your next trip to Italy. And, of course, keep coming back to Italofile.com for the latest Italy travel tips.
In an effort to beat the rush on all the spring travel book releases, Michelin very quietly released the 6th edition of its Green Guide Tuscany in mid-November. This is a leaner, meaner version of the guide, with a crisper layout, helpful maps and driving instructions, and more restaurant and lodging suggestions. I oughta know – I was the principal writer. 🙂
You can get a preview of the new version using Amazon’s “Search Inside!” function. And, if you think this is the type of guide that’s going to help you plan your upcoming Tuscan vacation, by all means buy this book! Thanks for your support.
Contrada Leocorno won the second round of this year’s Palio. So they will have bragging rights until next July. Auguri!
By the way, some spectators at the August 16 event noticed that Daniel Craig (the new James Bond) was in attendance. According to UPI, the Palio will be featured in the 22nd installment of the James Bond franchise. What a surprise that such a world famous race hasn’t been filmed for a Bond (or Bourne) film already…
If you missed Siena’s Palio horserace, held on July 2, you are not out of luck. The Contrada dell’Oca, the winner of the first of this year’s races, has the rest of the summer to enjoy its win. Then, on August 16, crowds will again fill Piazza del Campo for another running of the horses. For more information about the event, here’s a useful Palio FAQ.
*Post Update (7/7/07): A reader sent in a link to his site which has very cool photos and footage from this year’s Palio, as well as tons of information about the event (in Italian). Check out http://ilpaliodisiena.splinder.com. It’s also worthwhile to take a look at the many Palio perspectives on Flickr. Enjoy!
Art history junkies take note: learning about Italian art is easy with Jane’s Smart Art Guides. Order a CD set – or, even better, download the MP3s to your iPod – and you can learn more about St. Peter’s Basilica, Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo, or the Fra Angelico fresco cycle in Florence’s San Marco while you’re visiting them this summer or fall. Jane is also at work on audiotours for Orvieto’s San Brizio Chapel and Siena’s Palazzo Pubblico. We especially like Jane’s blog, which is rich with information on art history and happenings around the world.
While we encourage our readers to support Jane and her excellent guides, we also want to point out another artsy podcast of note. A team called smARThistory has an interesting – and FREE – video podcast on Bernini’s Ecstasy of St. Theresa. Upload this – rather than Dan Brown’s Angels and Demons – before your next trip to Rome.
Did know that you can get honorary citizenship from the Terre di Siena (Siena’s provincial tourism board)? Citizenship entails signing a Sustainable Tourism charter. Here’s what the charter lists as an honorary citizen’s privileges:
Receive full information about local activities in the community
Receive detailed information that will allow you to select the very best of what is available in the local community, whether this be cultural activities or authentic local products
Play a privileged role at any promotional activities organised by the Terre di Siena in the honorary citizen’s country of origin.
Have the opportunity to give feedback on local projects and events.
Okay…no EU work permit or a free bottle of Chianti. But, it’s not a bad ploy to get tourists thinking about their impact on the world.
On that note, as Italofile continues to grow, we’ll do our best to profile “green” tourist options in Italy whenever possible. Here’s hoping all of us who plan to travel this year will leave a lighter footprint.