It was a cool, wet Sunday as my parents and I boarded the bus in Florence that would take us to Siena. We could have taken a train between the two cities but it’s generally a better idea to take a bus between Florence and Siena because the Siena bus station is much closer to the city center than the train station. For about 2.5 hours our bus steadily drove along the highway through the rainy hills of Tuscany, stopping at two or three towns along the way. I kept track of our progress on my phone’s GPS and anytime we saw something interesting it was handy to be able to look up what it was. When the bus arrived in Siena it began weaving its way through the city streets and up the hill towards the old city center. At first I didn’t recognize much of the city but when we got to Siena’s bus station the memories from my 2015 visit started coming back.
From the bus station we made our way through the rain down towards our hotel, which was just a minute away from Piazza del Campo, the heart of old Siena. We’d be only staying a single night in the city and unfortunately the rain would hardly stop while we were there. On top of this, the flu-like sickness that been building inside of me for several days had finally arrived in full force and I felt miserable for the entire duration of our stay. Days later, after we got back from Italy, it would occur to me that I have somehow managed to get sick all three times that I’ve been to Europe. Back in 2012 I was sick for a day while in Milan and in 2015 I felt awful for three or four days while in Croatia.
Despite the rain and my illness we were going to make the most of our short time in Siena and after checking in at the hotel we walked down to Piazza del Campo, also known as Il Campo. This large medieval square looks sort of like a seashell or a fishtail and was built on a shallow slope at the spot where three hilltop towns converged. These towns would combine to form the city of Siena and as a symbol of unity the city government created guidelines in 1297 to make sure all buildings on Il Campo had similar architecture. In 1349 the square was paved with bricks and on sunny days it’s common to see people sitting around Il Campo like it’s a beach. Twice a year the square is also home a horse race called the Palio di Siena in which riders representing each district in the city race around Il Campo to claim glory for their neighborhood. At the top of the square you can find the Fonte Gaia, which translates to the “Fountain of the World.” This fountain was built in 1419 to replace an older fountain and it supplied water to this part of the city for centuries. In the 1800s, however, the facade decorations had become so worn down that they had to be replaced. Thankfully the original designs for the fountain had been preserved and the city was able to get a duplicate facade crafted. The original fountain decorations are now stored in a museum. Down at the bottom of Il Campo is the Palazzo Pubblico, the old seat of Siena’s government. The palace holds a good city museum and you can climb the tower for great views of Siena but we chose not to go in and instead head towards the Siena Cathedral.
One of the nice things about Siena is that the city’s historic core is very small—even smaller than Florence’s—meaning you only have to walk a few minutes from Il Campo to get to most of the places worth visiting. The cathedral is only about 500 feet (152 meters) from the square, and while the cathedral is at the top of the hill that Siena was built on it’s an easy climb from Il Campo. Along the way we detoured into a store to buy a few things, including more tissues for me. The rain wasn’t the only thing that was pouring that day and I was quickly burning through my supply of tissues as snot came flowing out of my nose.
When we got to the cathedral we took a few photos of the exterior before going into the ticket office to purchase our admission. There are a number of different tickets you can buy when visiting the cathedral and we bought the one that granted us access to the church’s interior, the Piccolomini Library, the church baptistery, the crypt, and the church’s museum. I believe this was called the Opa Si Pass. Once we had our tickets we went inside the cathedral to spend some time exploring it and drying off from the rain.
The Siena Cathedral was finished around 1264 and like the cathedral in Florence its builders used a combination of white, green, and pink marble on the outside to make decorative stripe patterns in the stonework. When you step inside the cathedral one of the first things that will probably catch your eye are the mosaics on the floors. These mosaics are sometimes covered to protect them from decay but thankfully when we visited all of them were on display. There are 56 of these Renaissance-era floor mosaics in the Siena Cathedral and they make for an interesting inversion in visiting a large church like this one. Normally when you go into a big church you spend a lot of time looking up, but in the Siena Cathedral you spend a lot of time looking down. The mosaics are roped off to keep people from stepping on them so you frequently can’t walk in a straight line to get from one area of the church to another. In addition to the floor decorations there are plenty of other things to check out such as the high altar, all the smaller chapels, and various works of art along the walls.
Connected to the main part of the Siena Cathedral is the Piccolomini Library. This room has choir books lining the walls at eye-level and higher up on the walls are frescoes that tell the story of Cardinal Enea Silbio Piccolomini, who grew up in Siena and eventually became Pope Pius II. The library was commissioned in 1492 and while it’s kind of small the decorations on the walls and ceiling make it worth a visit.
We stepped out of the cathedral to find the rain was still coming down, but we didn’t have to go far to reach our next destination. On the southeast side of the cathedral are the remains of an unfinished addition to the church. In the 1300s work began on a massive expansion that would have created a new nave and more than doubled the church’s size, making it one of the largest churches on the planet, but the Black Death hit Siena in 1348 and within a few years construction was permanently halted. This partially completed expansion now houses the cathedral’s museum, which we went inside after snapping a quick photo of the exterior. The museum holds artwork from various Italian Renaissance artists along with sculptures that were removed from the cathedral’s facade for preservation, but for me the high light of visiting the museum is going out on top of the “Facciatone.” This would have been the cathedral’s new front entrance and if you want you can climb up some stairs to the top for a panoramic view of Siena. Somehow, someway, we managed to catch a gap in the rain when we were out there, and while it was still cold, gray, and windy we could see most of the city from up there. We could also hear chanting coming from Siena’s football stadium, so we knew there was a game that evening. After we finished at the Facciatone we then passed through the museum’s treasury and saw a bit more artwork before we exited out.
Once we left the museum we quickly walked down a set of stairs to get to the cathedral’s baptistery and crypt but got there just as they were being closed for the day. If you’ve visited other Tuscan cities like Florence or Pisa you might remember how their cathedral baptisteries are separate buildings from the church but in the case of Siena the baptistery (and crypt) are directly underneath the cathedral itself. The Siena Cathedral was built on the top of a hill and there wasn’t enough flat land on it to fit the entire church up there so the baptistery and crypt were built into the side of the hill to provide support for the church above them.
Since we were out of luck for visiting the baptistery and crypt we got some other things done before getting dinner. The rain had resumed after we left the cathedral area but it was very light. We started by working our way north towards the bus station and along the way we scouted out some possible dinner and breakfast options. Right by the bus station we stopped to peer into Siena’s football stadium and check out the game we had heard from all the way over at the cathedral. We couldn’t see much of the field from behind the gates and I don’t know which city Siena was playing against that night but the players seemed unfazed by the weather. Across the street at the bus station I helped my parents locate the underground ticket office. This ticket office can be tricky to locate but if you’re at the Siena bus station and trying to find it just be on the lookout for stairs leading underground. Whereas the Florence bus station staff didn’t sell tickets for future dates, the Siena staff had no problem with selling us tickets for the next day and we purchased a ride on one of the express buses. Then we headed back to the hotel for a short rest before dinner.
For dinner that night we were having a little trouble deciding where to go. If the weather had been better we might have splurged on one of the restaurants that line Il Campo. From what I’ve read online these restaurants are of varying quality and the main thing you’re paying for is the privilege of dining right on one of Europe’s most famous squares. After doing some research on my phone I suggested we try checking out the square that’s directly behind the Palazzo Pubblico and we headed out to take a look. There we decided to eat at a restaurant called Antica Trattoria Papei and this would turn out to be one of the best decisions we made on our entire Italy trip. The restaurant hadn’t yet officially opened for the night but the very friendly staff let us in and got us a table inside. That we night we had easily the best meal of our trip and it’s a shame that I was sick and couldn’t fully enjoy it. I had some incredibly delicious spaghetti carbonara while my parents had other types of pasta. For dessert I had some crema catalana, which is very similar to creme brûlée and originally came from Spain. Normally with this dessert you caramelize the sugar on the top with a blowtorch or a hot iron but at our restaurant it was actually ignited and a flame burned on top of the crema catalana for a minute. This made for a cool photo and video that demanded to be shared on Instagram. We left Antica Trattoria Papei extremely satisfied and if I ever find myself back in Siena I’ll likely hit them up again for a meal.
The next morning we packed our bags and then went out for breakfast at a nearby pastry shop called Nannini. I don’t remember what the names of the two pastries I ate were but they were both tasty. My father and I afterwards made a withdrawal from a bank ATM and then we returned to the hotel to check out. We still had an hour before it would be time to head to the bus station so we left our bags at the front desk and went out to see the city one last time.
Yes, the rain was still coming down, though it wasn’t heavy and at times it would come to a brief halt. We first returned to the cathedral area in hopes of visiting the baptistery and crypt however it was a Monday and unfortunately that meant the cathedral’s various attractions would not be open until after we left Siena. We did a quick walk around the church and then strolled some of the nearby streets before heading down to Il Campo. The rain was getting harder when we got there and we alternated between being braving the downpour and staying under canopies. I really wish it had been sunny while we were in Siena so that my parents could see what Il Campo is like on nicer days but there wasn’t anything I could do about the weather. After a little while we returned to our hotel to grab our bags and then we made our way to the bus station.
Our bus showed up on time and took us back toward Florence through the wet Tuscan hill country. My parents were eyeing various villas we saw and joking about buying one of them for their retirement home. When we got to Florence we had lunch at a sandwich shop across the street from the train station and then it was time to catch our train. The weather in Siena had been a downer but overall our short stay there was a good one. Next we would be going even further north to the city of dreams. We were heading for Venice.