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With a mere 50,000 inhabitants Siena (sometimes spelled Sienna in English) doesn’t make it to the list of the largest cities in Italy, but has its place secured on most itineraries of Italian cities round trips. Thanks to its architecture and most importantly unique atmosphere, this small medieval town in Tuscany is a popular tourist destination. Its historic centre has been declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.
A legend says that Siena was founded by Senius, son of Remus, one of the two babies raised by the mother wolf (the other baby, Romulus, gave his name to Rome). The wolf with the twins is a typical symbol seen in various forms in many places in Siena. The symbolic colours of Siena are black and white, representing Senius and the other legendary founder, Aschius.
The centre of Siena is very convenient to pedestrians, as almost no cars are allowed to go inside. The real heart of Siena is the famous Piazza del Campo, a large square that has a shape of a shell. Many of the landmarks of Siena are located here, above all Palazzo Pubblico, originally the seat of the government of the city and now a museum. Next to the palace there is the 102m high Torre del Mangia (Tower of the Eater) that has its name after its first guardian Giovanni di Balduccio, who was known to spend all his money for food.
Two times each year (2nd July and 16th August) the well-known horse race, Palio di Siena, takes place at Piazza del Campo. This traditional and to some extent controversial event is conducted in medieval style. It often happens that the jockeys, which ride bareback, fell off their horses, as riding a horse around the corners of Piazza del Campo is not an easy task. The race always attracts large masses of people creating very energetic atmosphere at the square. If you are a James Bond fan, you may remember Siena Palio from Quantum of Solace (the scenes were filmed in August 2007).
If you don’t manage to be visiting Siena on the date of the Palio, don’t worry. There are many other things worth seeing (and at least, the city is not paralyzed by the crowds). One of the spectacular buildings is the cathedral (Duomo di Siena), dedicated to Santa Maria Assunta (Most Holy Mary of Assumption). It was started in the 13th century (though there were churches at the same place before). Originally, the plans were very ambitious and the building was intended to be much larger than it eventually became. The construction was affected by the Black Death in 1348 and lack of money. As a result, today’s cathedral has an unusual orientation with its axis running north-south. The reason is that today’s aisle was originally being built as the transept. Nevertheless, even while unfinished and smaller than planned, the Duomo looks magnificent and serves as a good reminder of the glorious times of medieval Siena.
As usual in Italian cities, there are many other churches worth seeing in Siena, especially Basilica dell’Osservanza and the churches of Santa Maria dei Servi, San Domenico, and San Francesco.
Besides taking pictures of all the old houses and monuments, take time and spend it just walking in the narrow streets or sit somewhere with wine. Siena offers a good environment for relaxing and enjoying its historic nature. It is an experience by itself.
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