The Contrade, Siena’s lifelines
Like for many Italian towns, the quarters are more important for the locals than the town as a whole. They are the place where the people have their roots and family ties, their friends, their neighbours, it is their haven. Siena has 17 of these quarters. Today, the contrade are the smallest unit in Siena, but the town is officially divided into three terzi: Terzo di Città, Terzo di San Martino and Terzo di Camollia. But back to the contrade: originally they were the neighbourhoods where specific craftsmen settled and did their trade. Each contrada has a patron saint, a community house with kitchen and all that to celebrate events within the community, an own fountain and a church. Of course the most important event for each contrada is the Palio, well, one of the two which are being held (July 2 and August 16). Already weeks before the Palio, the contrade start preparing the event and the days before the race, flags are hung out, tables and chairs are put on the streets and everyone is busy. It is also easy to see in which contrade one is when walking through Siena, because many houses have their symbol on the wall or at the letterboxes or little animals in the windows. I had a lot of fun trying to find out where I was. Bookstores in Siena will sell specific town maps where each contrada is marked.
A good overview about the 17 contrade is given on Wikipedia: Contrade of Siena. And details with link to each contrada with detailed information about seat, church, saint and fountain in another part of Wikipedia.
In case you want to have some impressions about the days of Palio, I found two nice videos on youtube which seem to capture the activities well:
video with emphasis on the horses (4 minutes),
video about the days before Palio (3 minutes).
And last but not least, a very atmospheric documentation I have on DVD is obviously also on youtube, in six parts (Italian with Dutch subtitles), each approx. 8-9 minutes. It shows days in the life of people of Contrada Civetta:
Palio, part 1
Palio, part 2
Palio, part 3
Palio, part 4
Palio, part 5
Palio, part 6
© Ingrid D., December 2010.
The Campanile - ONLY 900 persons a day
Only 900 persons a day are allowed to climb up the narrow stairs to the top of the Campanile.
Buy your ticket inside the court on the back in the counter and REGISTER for a certain time to climb up the tower.
Great place just outside the walls
Trattoria Fori Porta is a charming little restaurant, located just outside of the walls of Siena, and just up the street from our hotel. We had early reservations, so there was only one other table occupied when we arrived. However, it wasn't long before it started to fill up with locals (or tourists who spoke perfect Italian).
The decor is simple, yet charming. In the main foyer area, they have their wines displayed along with, what we later learned, was an antipasti buffet. The dining rooms were pleasantly decorated and comfortable. The waiter was very nice, helping us along with our destruction of the Italian language while ordering.
The food was all delicious. All the ingredients are fresh and flavorful, and they had some different choices on the menu. I had the roasted rabbit (coniglio) and my wife had the wild boar (cinghiale). Both were prepared perfectly. I started with bruschetta, while Sue had a Souffle of eggplant, which was delicious.
If you find yourself looking for a reasonably priced restaurant, with good food and local appeal, try Trattoria Fori Porta. The winner on this evening was the soufflè della melanzana or eggplant soufle. The flavors were incredible - a great mix of the eggplant flavors and the other spices.
Hospital history: Santa Maria della Scala
Besides the exhibits and frescoes inside Palazzo Pubblico, the old hospital was my most favourite museum in Siena. Like Palazzo Pubblico it is more of a “suggestive” museum than one crammed with exhibits. Many of the old and newer frescoes have been restored and more work is in progress. Although today only a portion of it is open to the public, the whole complex is huge. I didn’t realise this before I looked up the website and saw the aerial intro photo and drawing. And only during my visit I actually learned that it was one of the first hospitals in Europe, founded approximately 9th century and in operation until end of last century. Some old signs still demonstrate this, like a marble sign “Clinica Oculista” (eye clinic). When it was founded it was a place for pilgrims (the duomo is just across the street), for the poor and for abandoned children. Pilgrims, because Siena is along the route of Via Francigena. And taking care of abandoned children and poor people because this was what hospitals once had been, when the rich had their private doctors anyhow. A lot of signs of these past time tasks are visible today, especially in the Sala del Pellegrinaio (hall of the pilgrims). This huge hall has frescoes which show the history of this hospital, from the early dream to the daily work, such as healing ill people, giving out food and taking care of abandoned children. Old photographs make visible how this room was used as a hospital room with approx. 50 beds. I also liked the Sagrestia Vecchia (old sacristy) of with religious frescoes of 1444. I think it was because a lot of the paintings are gone, many only half restored. This gives room to imagination and lets one appreciate the artists of the past. Yes, maybe this is indeed what I feel in rooms like that: art is not restored to the fullest but like footprints of the artists. But the most striking part of the old hospital for me was the Oratorio di Santa Caterina della Notte one floor below, a small complex with chapel and additional small rooms. These rooms have a very special atmosphere. Already in the small aisle just in front of the chapel is a skull and gave me the impression of an old pathology. Inside, the chapel seems to have been restored in a way that you would believe the monks are just out for a lunch break and will be back soon. Rosaries and wooden belts hang on the wall, a candelabra stands somewhere with almost burnt down candles, prayer books lie on the benches.
I found the old hospital fascinating. Especially since while walking through it I realised that ignorant me didn’t gave a thought about what hospitals originally meant and how they have developed from the past idea and what our forefathers already knew about medicine and healing, long before they evolved as gods in white. Take time to walk through the rooms. And look. Many things of the old hospital are still there, like the already mentioned sign of the eye clinic or like old door handles with the symbol of this hospital (photo 2, the symbol, not the door handle). Oh, and I should say that the huge window of the former entrance hall give a good opportunity to take reflection photos of the duomo (see photo 4).
Not being a native English speaker, I only realised now (writing about the old hospital and the impressions it left on me), that the English term "hospitality" seems to derive from the old idea of a hospital offering a place to stay and food for the ones who come for a visit. These days pilgrims, today guests.
Thank you, dear Francesca (one of my teachers) to inspire me to visit this old hospital! I am so glad I did.
October 16 – March 16: daily, 10:30 – 16:30,
March 17 – October 15: daily, 10:30 – 18:30.
6 Euro (as of November 2010). Free entrance for children under 11, for inhabitants of Siena and for disabled people.
Spedale di Santa Maria della Scala on Google Maps.
© Ingrid D., December 2010 (just in case, RickS or others come along and think they can steal texts).
Duomo: beautiful facade
The beautiful façade was finished in 1376. It is an architectural masterpiece, made of ornaments, statues like the lions, mosaics and sculptures. The excellent glass mosaic was added in the 19th century.