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Siena's old world charm

travel Updated: Oct 01, 2010 12:24 IST
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Take a train ride through sunflower studded landscape from Florence or Pisa and within ninety minutes, you are at Siena. The Tuscan landscape here is brilliant chrome, the glowing sunflowers form a marvellous frame for this lovely old city. 

Myth says that the founder of Siena was Senius, son of Remus. Remus and Romulus were the twins suckled by a she wolf. Romulus later founded Rome. The enblem of the she wolf suckling twin boys is the sign of Siena and can be found all over the city. In medieval times, Siena was an important center of money lending and wool trade.

From the railway station, take a short bus ride that drops you at the edge of the Centro Storico, the city center. This is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I must warn you that the logic of Siena streets is opaque to the simple tourist. The quaint narrow alleys and not much broader streets simply swirl around the center and you can merrily travel in the direction opposite to that you want and be clueless about it.

The center of Siena is the Piazza del campo, a low sea shell shaped structure of pink and white tiles. Its like a saucer with a low sloping middle. The sides rise up and are lined with houses and cafes. The Palazzo Publico is the most impressive building here and houses an art gallery. Towering on one side, is the Torre del Mangia. Hundreds of tourists simply sit on the floor of the campo and enjoy the sunshine, the laughter and the camaraderie of total strangers bound by a beautiful sight. Every year on July 2 and Aug.16, Siena hosts the Palio, a famous horse race in the campo. Seventeen districts of Siena vie for the Palio, a painted banner of the Blessed Virgin. Their horses are specially bred for this occasion and they race round the rim of the campo. This is the most important event in Siena and has tourists flocking by the thousands to see it.

Off the Campo, is the Siena Cathdral dedicated to Santa Caterina, the patron saint of Siena. This was visualised as a huge structure but after building half, the funds ran out and the project was abandoned. So the cathedral is actually half of its original plan and semi constructed walls show how it was actually envisaged. There is an interesting story about Saint Catherine. Her body lies in Rome but the Siennese wanted it to be in her home town. So they managed to severe her head and smuggled it to Siena where it remains inside a bronze cast.

The University of Siena is one of the oldest in Italy.

Siena has the unique distinction of being the first city in Italy to be completely wired by fibre optic cables. The waitress who served me a limonada said with great pride that every house in Siena was wired for cable. She also advised me to have the bruschetta, a garlic bread with tomato and herbs--simply delicious. Among the Tuscan wines of the region, the Bianco vergina della valchiana and the Brunello di mentalcino are very much recommended by the locals.

Dr.Ajjanta Chakravarty is a management consultant and an avid globe trotter. She can be reached at

ajjanta@ajjanta.com

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