Medieval Spirit of Italy – Rick Steve’s Travel Blog

I believe a regular dose of travel dreaming can be good for the soul. Move away with me to Siena, Italy in this excerpt from my book For the love of EuropeA collection of 100 stories of my favorite places, people, and European travel life.

Spread across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers perhaps the best medieval experience in Italy. The courtyards are flower-decorated wells, the churches humbly share their art, and the alleys turn into red-tiled roof panoramas. It is a city made for walking. Its rocky skylines and rustic brick alleys roll by any means, the city is a time of architecture, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.

Today, the self-confident Sienis proudly recalls their century-old achievements. In the 1300s, Siena was one of the largest cities in Europe and a major military power in a class including Florence, Venice and Genoa. But weakened by a catastrophic plague and conquered by her Florentine rivals, Siena became a backwater – and it has been ever since. Siena’s loss becomes a gain for travelers because its political and economic irrelevance preserves its Gothic identity.

This is most notable in Il Campo, where I started my walk. In the city center, this great shell-shaped piazza, featuring a sloping red-brick floor from the City Hall tower, is designed for people, providing the perfect invitation for the lottery. El Campo plunges you into a world where troubadors stroke the guitar, lovers stroke each other’s hair, and belly pillows. It got my vote for the best pizza in all of Europe.

Most Italian cities have a church on their main square, but El Campo gathers the citizens of Siena around City Hall, including its skyscraper municipal tower. Holding my breath as I climbed to the top of the 100-yard-long bell tower, I surveyed the scene and thought about the statement that Campanile had made. In Siena, the king and the popes took a back seat to the people, as it was all about secular government, civil society and humanism.

The public is welcomed inside the City Hall where, for seven centuries, educational frescoes have reminded us of all the effects of good and bad government. A fresco shows a utopian republic, happily in peace; Another fresco depicts a city in ruins, engulfed in greed and oppression.

But the church still has its place. If El Campo is the heart of Sienna, then Duomo is his soul – and my next destination. Sitting a few blocks from the main square, above the highest point of Siena, and visible for miles around, this white- and dark-green-striped cathedral is as ornate as Gothic. Inside and outside, it is filled with statues and mosaics. The stone heads of nearly 2,000-year-old popes – more than 170 so far – ring inside, peeking from top to bottom as they enter.

Great art, including carvings by Michelangelo and Bernini, complements the interior of the church. Nicola Pisano carved the magnificent marble pulpit in 1268. It is crammed with subtle Gothic storytelling. I get closer to studying the scenes of the life and final judgment of Christ.

Trying to escape the crowds at the cathedral and main courtyard, I walked away from the city center. I get purposefully lost in the curious back street of Siena, wrapped in iron rings to tether the horse and lined up with colorful flags. Those flags represent the city Districts (Neighborhood), whose fervent loyalty is demonstrated twice a summer during Palio, a wild bareback horse race that turns Il Campo into an exciting and crowded racetrack.

While wandering around the city, I was fascinated by the street shops featuring cyanide specialties: gourmet pasta, vintage chianti, Boer prosciutto and city favorite food: Panforte.

Sienna demands for calorie fame in Panfort. This rich, chewy mix of nuts, honey and candied fruit fascinates even fruitcake haters. Local bakeries claim that their recipe dates back to the 13th century. Some even force employees to sign an undisclosed contract so that they do not reveal the special spice blend that tastes like their version of this favorite – and very dense – cake.

One of the keys to enjoying Siena is to imagine it in the good old days of the 14th century while taking advantage of today’s modern scene. After chewing on some of that panfort, I decided to stay here until the evening when the tour groups left the city on their buses. I duck in a bar for Hungry (Happy Hour), which includes a free buffet and now I’m primed and ready to join Walking – An evening walk. When I return to El Campo to enjoy that beautiful twilight moment when the sky is brighter than a rich blue dome, the proud Siena Tower that seems to hold it high.

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