Siena is a tiny medieval town, famous throughout the world for its Palio, a crazy, insane horse-race run twice a year in July and August. Bare-back. Around the Piazza il Campo. The only rule? Riders are not allowed to interfere with opponents' reins. Other than that, anything goes. A horse can win without a rider!
The town's heart, like most Italian towns, is the central piazza, Piazza il Campo. It's by far the best sight in this tiny and fantastic town. Guide book regurgitation: shaped like a seashell, the piazza and the Palazzo Pubblico were completed sometime in the 14th century, yadda.... Like any Italian piazza, it's a prime people-watching venue. Overtouristed as all heck.
The streets of Siena wend their nefarious ways in circles around Piazza il Campo, curving and meandering randomly like a snail's shell. And the buildings curve too, I swear it; it would seem that they are not built on a flat plane at all. What came first: house or street?
Il Duomo: I have to wonder what on earth possessed the man who designed a cathedral with horizontal black and white stripes. Definitely unique, indeed, but faintly ridiculous to the modern eye, conjuring up images of prison uniforms and zebras. But of course, in the 14th century, they didn't have either of those things.
I wish they'd clean it, particularly the interior; it would be truly spectacular. Seven hundred years of grunge is a lot of grunge.
Ah, but these churches are busy! Never let the eye rest. Patterned floors, carvings, paintings, sculptures, stained glass. The capitals of these interior columns - some of them are carved with extraordinary winged creatures.
It's rather eerie, to look up above the arches of the central nave and see the row of heads looking down at you. Some brilliant man decided to have busts of all the popes (I think - I'm not Catholic!) placed up there. They all look rather alike and they all let their cold, stone gaze fall judgementally on your head.
Ponderings on the nature of bars: I gave up against the cold misery of the rain and get a little snack in a bar. So while I sit here, I figured I may as well describe the unique Italian phenomenon known as a bar.
We're not talking the American idea of a bar, where beer is served and the TV is loud. An Italian bar is a place to get a cappucino, a snack, a gelato. Bars are meeting places, somewhere to sit around and indulge in a national pastime: talking. Endless conversations about everything, from politics to sports, particularly the latter.
Bars range from tiny hole-in-the-wall places with barely enough room to squeeze by, to elaborate and classy establishments such as Catania's elite Café Europa. This particular bar is on the upper end, with a lovely white plastered arched ceiling, gleaming glass cases, sleek wood, pink marble topping the elegant curved bar, chic little tables and chairs. The layout is typical: long and narrow, you are presented first with the glass cases full of paste (pastries) and tavola calda ("hot table")-type snacks. And the gelato, if the bar offers it.
Then comes the cashier, where you always pay first (although it seems to depend on the region; here I was butted out of line by patrons wanting to pay for their caffe and leave). Then the heart of the bar: the long, not-quite-chest-high counter for the caffe. Gleaming silver buckets spice the length, and behind it, the barmen work their miracles.
The barman is actually a specialized profession in Italy: open only to men, it requires precise and expert knowledge of Italy national drink. Casual, quick, and elegant, with not a wasted movement, they spin out cups of cappucino and espresso like magic. The sounds are ritual: the one-two clunk-clunk of emptying the tiny filter of used coffee grounds, the click of filling it anew, the chunk of fitting it into place on the long, stainless steel machine, the hissing shish-shroar of a filling cup, the chink as it is placed on the marble in front of a waiting patron.
These noises are the even rhythm of the incessant murmur of talk that fills the bar.
There are two types of espresso drinkers: those that slap it down in a gulp or two like a shot of liquor; and those that sip it slowly, elegantly, with long pauses to stare into space inbetween.
People-watching is at a premium in bars. The bar is mostly the man's place; the women that I do see in bars are almost inevitably accompanied by a man.
Of course, I consider the best drink to get here is cicolatto caldo (hot chocolate) - especially when they do it just right, like the steaming cup in front of me. Mixed and foamed on the cappucino-maker, it's rather like drinking hot, liquid mousse.
Ponderings in the Piazza il Campo: The sun has finally emerged from the rainclouds, and people, like mushrooms, appear on the Campo. I finish my drawing of the tower and wait, somewhat impatiently, for the sun and clouds to coordinate in such a manner as I can get the shot I want of it.
I wonder what it was like here, nearly 600 years ago, soon after the Campo and Duomo were built? How quiet, how clean, how pristine everything must have been. This half broken-down, half worn look that we find so charming would've been a disgrace and horrifying to the Senese in the 15th century.
You always have to wonder that the people here think of this place. We see it through romantic-coloured sunglasses - it has such an air of foreignness! But what of the people who live day-to-day beneath the shadow of the tower, the Duomo, the millenium of history? What do they see?
Coming out of the hotel, I had the good fortune to step right into a drummer and flag-thrower practice of the Contrada di Drago. About eight young men and boys with drums - one of them couldn't have been more than 4 years old. His drum was very little, and he wasn't really beating it. And the big banners of the Dragon! It's my favorite contrada; I feel like it's mine, probably on the sole merit that it happens to have been the palio (banner) I chose from a souvenir shop six years ago.