Snapshots of Rainy Siena, Italy: A Few Days in the Heart of Tuscany
It’s been three years since I wandered a hilltown in Italy by myself.
My trip to Orvieto and Assisi was well before I watched with the rest of the world as Italy was ravaged by a pandemic, a memory that is clearly fresh on the streets of Italy as they require N95 masks in all public places.
But I boarded a flight this week for Pisa and then hopped a train to Siena because I’m returning to Tuscany for a retreat that has been cancelled and rescheduled twice.
I always like to visit somewhere new in Italy before I head over to my friend Jane’s retreats, so I chose Siena, a town that is on the way to Fattoria via Italy’s impressive train network.
I stepped off the train on a rainy afternoon and proceeded to drag a suitcase all over Siena’s stone streets for the better part of an hour before reaching my little hotel room.
I passed through Siena’s main square, Il Campo, where everyone goes to watch the horses race in the summer and where both locals and tourists gather for drinks and people-watching.
I returned to the square after checking into my hotel room to start a city walking tour. Often when I am by myself, I download a walking tour from Rick Steve’s Audio Europe app. The one for Siena was just over an hour, so I popped in my headphones and started walking.
The center of Siena is all pedestrian, so it’s perfect for a walking tour. (I do love a car-free city.)
As I walked up the hill from the main square to the Duomo, I passed shops, restaurants and palazzos.
After peeking into a courtyard with an ancient well, I soon found myself rounding a corner and staring up at the wedding-cake like structure that is arguably the main attraction in Siena, Il Duomo.
The last time I passed through Siena, I didn’t have time to tour the Duomo, so I planned to take my time seeing it this time around. I bought a 2-day ticket to the church, the crypt, the baptistry and the museum next door.
I started by walking all around the outside on the wet marble.
The tall tower looks even taller than it actually is. Optical illusions are used to make both the tower and the inside of the dome appear taller than they are. On the outside the stripes of the tower are painted closer together as they get higher to give you the impression that the top is further away.
The next day I climbed an adjacent building and took a photo of the tower where you can see the way the stripes are stacked to create this impression.
I spent a long time inside the church looking up at the dome and then at all the floor mosaics and the library of VERY OLD choir books. They were giant so that the whole choir could look at them all at once, so I guess you could say they are the 16th century version of the overhead projector. Except the pages were made of sheepskin and then painted in great detail by monks.
Back outside the church, I continued my tour down the steep steps to the baptistry which is around the back of the church.
I was sure I was going to fall down these wet, steep stairs, but you’ll be glad to know that I made it down them in tact.
I guess hand rails weren’t really a thing in the fourteenth century.
Side note: Be sure to wear sensible shoes if you visit Siena.
I feel like this goes without saying when visiting any European city but I always see folks traipsing around in the most crazy shoes. And don’t get me wrong, I have mad respect for gals walking through the rainy, steep streets of Siena in heels, but that’s never going to be me.
My audio tour took me next to a viewpoint below the Duomo where you can look out and see another of Siena’s famous churches, San Domenico, which I would visit the next day.
By this point, I was soaking wet, so I grabbed a few snacks and made my way back to my hotel.
Oh but first I stopped for gelato (hazelnut and pistachio, in case you’re wondering) because rain or shine, I’m going to have gelato on my first day back in Italy after three years.
The hotel where I stayed has a courtyard covered in wisteria, so I walked around back there to take in the views before calling it a day.
It’s at the edge of the center of Siena so the courtyard looks out over the Tuscan hillside.
Day 2 started with breakfast at the hotel. Cappuccino, of course. Plus pastries, fruit and yogurt.
Fueled and rested, I headed back out into the rain.
The rain was falling even harder than the day before, so I was properly soaked before I reached the Duomo museum.
Once inside the museum, I carried my dripping raincoat at arm’s length while viewing the original statues and stained glass from the church. In the last 50 years or so, replicas have been put in place in the church and the originals have been moved to this museum in order to preserve them.
A couple of favorites:
John the Baptist. I was hoping to see Donatello’s John the Baptist in the Duomo, but it is currently on loan to an exhibit in Florence. So this one by Jacopo Della Quercia stood in as a decent substitute. I really love it when an artist renders John the Baptist as crazy as I imagine he was. I think of him as being similar to John Brown. I imagine they are now friends in a corner of heaven alongside Jeremiah and Isaiah, all of them railing against corrupt kings, American slave-owners and injustice with equal passion.
Madonna and Child. Since I missed most of Donatello’s Siena work, I was grateful to find this sculpture by him in the Duomo museum. Mary’s face and hair resembles other sculptures I’ve admired of Donatello’s, always exquisite. And the blue glass inlays are a fun touch. Good stuff.
At the top of the museum you can take some stairs up to an archway that was meant to be part of the original church, but is just a facade or facciatone. Because of the rain, we were only permitted to walk out on the first level, but it was well worth doing for the views.
In addition to the photo of the church from the higher point of view, I took MANY photos of Siena from the other side of the walkway.
From these photos, you can understand why we have a crayon in our original box of Crayolas called Burnt Siena.
Siena is known all over Italy for this reddish brown color.
It’s hard to tell, but from this viewpoint, you can see Il Campo which has the tall tower just at its edge.
After climbing up high for the view and touring the museum, I was ready for a little something to eat.
Pizza and Vino. Yes, please.
After lunch, I made my way further through the streets, past shops and restaurants.
And through more rain naturally.
I passed many umbrellas before reaching the Basilica of San Domenico.
San Domenico has a chapel that is dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena. It actually houses both her head and one of her fingers, which is a bit creepy but well worth seeing. Catherine, who influenced popes and politics in her time, is beloved in Siena. Her body is entombed in Rome but the people of Siena were determined to have some of her remains, so the story is that they stole her head and finger to bring her back to her hometown.
I was properly wet again by the time I got to San Domenico, so I sat for a while in the church, which is far less busy than the Duomo.
I lit some candles, said some prayers, wrote in my journal and enjoyed being out of the rain.
From the outside of San Domenico, you can look back at the center of Siena and see both the Duomo and its tower on the hill to the right.
And then to the left is the tower that dominates Siena’s main square.
The rain had slowed to a light drizzle by the time I left San Domenico, so I walked slowly back through the city once more, stopping for tea and a pastry along the way.
The next day it was time to wave goodbye to lovely Siena and make my way to a beloved villa and familiar vineyard.
What a delight to be back in Bella Italia!!