March 24, 2019
Spring2019_Semester on the Italian Coast
Siena_ an old city that will never get o
I cannot say enough about Siena.
Being such a history buff, there is something about walled cities that just excites me beyond measure! Siena, located in the Italian region of Tuscany, was settled sometime between 900-400 BC by a tribe known as the Saina. Over the next two thousand years, Siena developed into a bustling red-brick community with defensive walls surrounding the city center. Today, it is most famously known for its 17 "contrade" (pronounced con-tra-da), meaning "small districts," inside the walls. Each contrade has a specific symbol or animal, such as the giraffe, lion, wave, caterpillar, and tower. Twice per year, these contrade elect jockeys to represent their district in the Palio di Siena, a horse race around the city's main square. Over 100,000 people (a number twice the size of the local population) flock to see these races, and it definitely something that is now on my bucket list! The winning contrade receives bragging rights and gets to decorate their district in celebration until the next Palio takes place.
I went to Siena in March with a friend from home who was also studying abroad. I arrived by train a few hours ahead of her, so I checked into the Airbnb and checked out the city.
First I walked to Piazza del Campo, the main square, which was surprisingly shaped like a fan. Tens of restaurants and gift shops lined the piazza, and locals lay on the brick with friends and wine as the sun began to set. This was real, authentic, Italy. After a loop around the Piazza and the surrounding area, I found Osteria Pizzeria Il Vicolo, a small, quiet restaurant. I sat at a table by myself and ordered wine (if you're in Tuscany you must try Chianti Classico, a sweet red that's only made with Tuscan grapes) and cacio e pepe, which literally translates to "cheese and pepper," but of course there's pasta under all that great Italian cheese!
People began to stream in as my food was delivered to me; some were locals, some were visitors like me. The restaurant soon became packed, but I just sat, observed, listened. One thing I can't stress enough to study abroad students is to enjoy time alone. In fact, SAVOR it. Too often do students and adults alike forget to simply sit and be still. I heard two Italian men behind me, whose conversation I could barely understand because of my horrible Italian. To my left, an elderly retired couple whom I suspected were English attempted to figure out the menu: "What wine is good?" "I can't understand this word..." The waiter tried to help them but his English wasn't any better than their Italian. When the woman began to appear anxious, the Italian men behind me went to her rescue, and helped the couple decipher the menu and communicate their order with the waiter. Although a pretty standard interaction, I found it completely mesmerizing: here I was, and American student studying abroad, witnessing the kindness and understanding of local Senese toward an old English couple. It was wonderful!
This one interaction made me feel so much more comfortable traveling alone; everyone gets confused, nervous, and even frustrated when they experience unfamiliarity. But you must trust! Trust the locals to help you, trust the wait staff to be patient, trust yourself to adapt and learn from the experience--you may even make some friends along the way!
Anyway, the rest of the experience consisted of sightseeing... lots and lots of sightseeing! Together my friend and I took on the Duomo di Siena (a massive cathedral). This church is definitely a must-visit, as I have seen no other cathedral with stripes like these - this cathedral has some serious zebra vibes. My friend and I climbed to one of the bell towers that overlooked the city and the rolling hills of Tuscany beyond the city walls. Additionally, we visited the Basilica Cateriniana San Domenico (another old cathedral), Piazza Salimbeni (another small town square), Porta Romana (one of the four entrances to the walled city), and Fontebranda (a thirteenth-century fountain with three arches, each with separate uses: drinking water for humans, drinking water for animals, and water for washing clothes). Regarding the latter, Siena is well known for its plentiful fountains, mainy of which still yield fresh drinking water. I would suggest finding at least two, or three if you're extra tenacious!
If you're looking for some good restaurants, I can recommend Osteria Pizzeria Il Vicolo (mentioned above, serves pasta), Osteria La Mossa (pasta), Cor Magis di Marco Ricci (pizza), and Bar Pasticceria (gelato!). Of course, every local restaurant in Siena has a unique story and flavor, and I encourage you to trust your taste buds when it comes to food there - you can't go wrong!
I'm putting Siena on my list to visit again because I'm bound and determined to see the Palio race and find a few more fountains! Also, it is just so authentically Italian. Definitely one of my favorite trips of my entire abroad experience!
Woman in Plants