Siena. A city of Contrade.
Medieval city right in the heart of Tuscany and protected by Unesco as a World Heritage Site, Siena is and always will be on our Top 10 favourite places. Old buildings surrounded by magnificent cathedrals, colourful flags hanging from windows and balconies, stories, traditions...
Let's start with probably the most famous horse race in the world, and the oldest one. The Palio runs twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th. It's not just a race. Siena is divided in seventeen Contrade (ward) with specific boundaries within the city walls, each one represented by a symbol, animal or mascot, plus a code of conduct, allies to help or get help from, and of course sworn rivals with hundred of years of resentment to defeat during the race.
Winning the Palio can be celebrated for months but to win both editions (the summer one in July, the autumn one in August) is to be sitting with the Gods and celebrations can last for months and months. Husbands and wives stop talking to each other, the Palio is a very serious business that mustn't be taken lightly. It is probably one of the craziest, most expensive, unforgettable experience one can ever have but is definitely worth it.
There are places that are older than you would imagine... We accidentally entered the original building of the first bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena. They still have all the transactions ever recorded since the 4th of March, 1472. We also learnt that the word "banca" (bank) comes from the way the old bankers used to trade, by setting up a line of tables (in Italian banco, banchi) on the streets of Siena, next to the merchants at the local markets. They recorded transactions, loans, debts, everything in details. They had lists of exchange rates for different coins, cheques that could be cashed out wherever the person needed because agents of the bank could be found in many countries outside Siena. So fascinating!
Also, many pilgrims travelling on the Francigena road, from France to Rome, stopped in Siena to leave their money with the bank, so that they wouldn't have to carry it all with them. They would stop on the way back to collect it, although many of them never did, leaving behind considerable amounts of cash, then used to build cathedrals, the famous hospital and university.
The Piazza del Campo, where the Palio takes place, is one of the greatest medieval squares, with the Palazzo Pubblico (Town Hall) and the Torre del Mangia at its centre. The latter so called after Giovanni di Balduccio, the tower first bellringer, nicknamed "Mangiaguadagni" (earning/salary eater) because of his laziness, then shortened to Mangia.
Like many other medieval towns, Siena is at its best at sunset, when the sun find its way through the narrow streets, up the hills, and when the city slows down a little, the day coming to an end.
It is a beautiful city, and we did wonder how would it be to live there... But mostly, which contrada to be part of. You see, there is no life in Siena without a good Contrada to support. And as husband and wife, we better pick the same one!