The Spirit of Medieval Italy – Rick Steves’ travel blog

I think a regular dose of travel dreams can be good for the soul. Walk away with me to Siena, Italy, in this excerpt from my book For the love of Europe, a collection of 100 of my favorite places, people, and stories from her lifetime European travels.

Stretching across a Tuscan hill, Siena offers perhaps the best experience in medieval Italy. Courtyards feature flowery wells, churches modestly share their art, and alleys dead-end to panoramic red-tiled rooftop views. This is a city made for hiking. With its rocky skyline and brick country lanes winding in every direction, the city is an architectural time period, where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past.

Today, confident Sienas remember their centuries-old achievements with pride. In the 13th century AD, Siena was one of Europe’s largest cities and a major military power, in class with Florence, Venice, and Genoa. But Siena was weakened by a catastrophic epidemic and invaded by its rivals in Florence, and has been a stagnant region ever since. Siena’s loss became a traveler’s gain because its political and economic insignificance preserved its Gothic identity.

This is the highlight at Il Campo, where I started my walk. In the middle of town, this gorgeous shell-shaped plaza, with a sloping red brick floor spreading out from the City Hall tower, is designed for people, and makes the perfect inviting for lounging. Il Campo immerses you in a world where guitars are played by group dwellers, lovers are banging each other’s hair, and bellies become pillows. I got my vote for the best arena in all of Europe.

Most Italian cities have a church in their main square, but Il Campo gathers the citizens of Siena around the City Hall with its town hall towering over the skyscrapers. Taking my breath away after climbing to the top of the dizzy 100-yard bell tower, I surveyed the view and thought about the statement this camper had made. In Siena, kings and popes took a back seat to the people, as it was all about secular government, civil society, and humanism.

We welcome the public inside the town hall, where, for seven centuries, the guiding frescoes have reminded all the traces of good and bad government. One of the frescoes shows a utopian republic at peace; The other painting depicts a city in ruins overrun by greed and tyranny.

But the church still has its place. If Il Campo is the heart of Siena, then the Duomo is its soul – and my next destination. A few blocks from the main square, perched atop Siena’s highest point and visible for miles around, this white and dark green striped cathedral is ornate like a Gothic. Inside and out, it is awash with statues and mosaics. The stone heads of nearly 2,000 years of popes – more than 170 to date – ring inside, looking down from above on all those who enter.

Great art, including sculpted statues by Michelangelo and Bernini, fills the interior of the chapel. Nicola Pisano sculpted the magnificent marble pulpit in 1268. It is jam-packed with delicate storytelling in the Gothic style. I approach to study scenes from Christ’s life and the last judgment.

In an effort to escape the crowds in the cathedral and in the main square, I dare to stray far from the city centre. I purposely got lost in Siena’s intriguing backstreets, studded with iron rings for tying horses and lined with colorful flags. Those flags represent the city provinces (The Neighborhoods), whose fierce allegiances appear twice each summer during Palio, a wild, bareback horse race that turns Il Campo into an exciting racetrack full of people.

Strolling the far reaches of town, I’m tempted by the Sienese specialties in the shops along the way: gourmet pasta, vintage chianti, pork prosciutto, and the city’s favorite treat: panforte.

Panforte is Sienna’s claim to calorie fame. This rich, chewy mixture of nuts, honey and candied fruits will impress even fruitcake haters. Local bakeries claim their recipe dates back to the 13th century. Some even force employees to sign nondisclosure agreements to ensure they won’t reveal the special spice blend that goes with their version of this beloved—and very dense—cake.

The key to enjoying Siena is to imagine it at the height of the fourteenth century while making use of today’s modern landscape. After chewing off a good chunk of this panforte, I decided to stay here for the evening, after the tour groups had boarded their buses and left town. I’m slower in a bar for Aperitif (Happy Hour), which includes a free buffet, and now I’m ready and ready to join He walks Evening walk. I have set my arrival at Il Campo to enjoy that moment of beautiful twilight when the sky is a rich blue dome, no brighter than the proud Siena towers they seem to raise.

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