Sunday, October 29, 2006

Saturday, 28th October – Siena

Like the seasoned travelers we are by now, we managed to figure out the Siena bus system (we think) and caught a cute little bus into the Campo. Another glorious day with clear blue skies, so we queued up to climb the Torre del Mangia (City Tower) which promises “one of Italy’s best views”. After waiting half an hour and still not getting up to the ticket office (they only let 25 up at a time) we decided we could cope without it – considering Keith’s crook knees and Shelley’s altitude aversion we also decided we aren’t really tower climbing types really. (Like that ever stopped us!) Instead we had a wander around the Campo taking in the atmosphere.

The Cathedral in Siena, also referred to as the Duomo, dates from 1215, and unlike Florence’s Duomo is packed with art, inside and out. Sculptures by Michaelangelo & Bellini, stunning frescoes, wonderful inlaid marble floors, towering green & while marble columns, painted ceilings, a spectacular carved marble pulpit by Pisano, medieval stained glass – it’s quite an overwhelming sight. We were fortunate to see the inlaid marble floors, because they are covered for most of the year, and are only opened in September & October. Some of them were still covered, much to our disappointment, but the ones we saw were extraordinary enough. One of the most beautiful features is called the Piccolomini Library. Piccolomini was a Sienese-born Pope (Pius II) and the library, a large room tacked on to the side of the nave to house his extensive collection of books (now lost), is a feast for the eyes. Brightly coloured frescoes cover the walls and ceilings, which are just superb. The detail in the pictures is amazing, and the colours are so rich it could have been done yesterday (actually 1502 – and not cleaned or retouched since).

We dragged ourselves somewhat reluctantly out of the Duomo (the rest of Siena’s “must-see” sights awaited). Next door is the Duomo museum, housing the treasures from the Cathedral. Some incredible objects, notably a large painting of the Madonna from 1311 (a masterpiece of medieval art), the original stained glass window from the cathedral made in the 13th century, sculptures by Donatello & Pisano. The building itself is interesting. The Siena cathedral was intended to be much bigger, and one wall and some columns of the planned building were completed before the plague stopped the work. Some of the columns were filled in with later brickwork, and that is the home of the museum. You can see part of the columns in the corners of the walls. There is also one wall of the abandoned building (the facciatone) which you can climb on for great views (so much for avoiding steps and high places). Actually it was very safe but really scary – maybe something to do with it being only the thickness of a wall (well, a thick wall, but still …) but the views were really great.

Across the Piazza from the Duomo is Santa Maria della Scala, which was a hospital and almshouse from the 12th century until the 1980’s. The main attraction is a huge hall filled with frescoes from 1442 detailing medieval Siena’s innovative health care and social welfare system. By now we were getting pretty tired, but we had bought a combo-ticket so had to get our money’s worth. We visited the baptistery, unusually situated under the end of the cathedral (because of the steep site, the entrance is at street level). Sumptuously decorated, with striking font including bronze relief panels made by Donatello & Ghiberti (he did the famous panels on the door of the baptistery in Florence).

We thought we’d end the day with a little splurge by having dinner on the Campo, which is lined by restaurants on one side. But 5 minutes of snooty waiters was enough to send us away and we found a restaurant nearby recommended by Rick (no view but great atmosphere and delightful owners) and had a very tasty and inexpensive meal (Papardelle with wild boar sauce!)