Siena, San Gimignano and Monteriggioni

This was to be our last full day in Florence, and we were not even going to spend it in the city. Up early and off to the tour office for our wine tasting tip into Tuscany. Along with that we were going to visit Siena, San Gimigano and Monteriggioni, the last two I had never heard of before this trip.

Our fist stop was at the tour office where I Vance and I were discussing the marketing of scooters in Italy. One of the models we saw was called the Beverly and we figured it was marketed to women, the other, which we figured was marketed to men was the “Grand Dink”, which we thought was pretty funny. Later in the day Vance saw the “Classic Dink” I just don’t think those names would have flown in North America.

Once on the bus we had about a hour ride though the countryside to our first stop. San Gimignano. It is an old city, founded in the 3rd century BC but did not adopt the name until the 10th century AD. It is a classic medieval walled city with towers and narrow cobblestone streets. It is also home to the worlds best gelato, which we had to sample. Twice.

The views from the top of this town are spectacular. It is what you think of when you see vistas of the Tuscan countryside. Although not big and not a long stop, it would be one I would recommend for anyone traveling in this region.

After our stop here we went to a local vineyard to have a tour of the grapes and olive production. Very similar to the tours you would get in the wine region of BC. (Although without the olives!) We also had a light lunch here that was accompanied by the three wines they produce, along with some cheese and foods that really complimented the wines.

From here we headed off to Monteriggioni, another medieval walled town, but this one is much smaller. Currently it only has about 5o residence living here. It’s historical significance is that this town, along with San Gimignano were traditional stop overs for the pilgrims who were trekking either to or from Rome. Cute, small town, no world famous gelato, but a nice shoe store. But we did not buy any shoes.

From Monteriggioni our next stop was Siena, a UNISCO world heritage site. First settled in 900-400 BC it is the capitol of the province of Siena. The Piazza del Campo was regarded as one of the nicest public spaces in the region. Today it still holds the Palio di Siena, a horse race between the 17 regions of the city. Wikipedia explains it well.

“The Palio di Siena is a traditional medieval horse race run around the Piazza del Campo twice each year, on 2 July and 16 August. The event is attended by large crowds, and is widely televised. Seventeen Contrade (which are city neighbourhoods originally formed as battalions for the city’s defence) vie for the trophy: a painted banner, orPalio bearing an image of the Blessed Virgin Mary. For each race a new Palio is commissioned by well-known artists and Palios won over many years can often be seen in the local Contrade museum. During each Palio period, the city is decked out in lamps and flags bearing the Contrade colours.

Ten of the seventeen Contrade run in each Palio: seven run by right (having not run in the previous year’s corresponding Palio) together with three drawn by lot from the remaining ten. A horse is assigned to each by lot and is then guarded and cared for in the Contrade stable. The jockeys are paid huge sums and indeed there are often deals and bribes between jockeys or between ‘allied’ Contrade committees to hinder other riders, especially those of ‘enemy’ Contrade. For the three days preceding the Palio itself, there are practice races. The horses are led from their stables through the city streets to the Campo, accompanied by crowds wearing Contrade scarves or tee-shirts and the air is filled with much singing and shouting.

Though often a brutal and dangerous competition for horse and bare-back rider alike, the city thrives on the pride this competition brings. The Palio is not simply a tourist event as a true Sienese regards this in an almost tribal way, with passions and rivalry similar to that found at a football ‘Derby’ match. In fact the Sienese are baptised twice, once in church and a second time in their own Contrade fountain. This loyalty is maintained through a Contrade ‘social club’ and regular events and charitable works. Indeed the night before the Palio the city is a mass of closed roads as each Contrade organises its own outdoor banquet, often for numbers in excess of 1,000 diners. On the day of the Palio itself the horses are accompanied by a spectacular display of drummers and flag twirlers dressed in traditional medieval costumes who first lead the horse and jockey to the Contrade parish church and then join a procession around the Piazza del Campo square. This traditional parade is called the Corteo Storico, which begins in the streets and concludes in thePiazza del Campo encircling the square. There are often long delays while the race marshall attempts to line up the horses, but once underway the Campo becomes a cauldron of wild emotion for the 3 minutes of the race.”

From Siena we headed back to Florence for a dinner out at our favourite neighbourhood place and then off to bed. In the morning we have to be up early to catch the train to Manarola.

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