“You cannot be in Italy and not visit Siena! You should go there on your trip!” It was this remark to me from Maurizia that made me glad, once again, for the fact that I have been traveling without booking things too far in advance. Because the thing was, I was already on my trip in Italy and Siena was most conveniently along my current route from Tuscany to Rome. It seemed it was taking me longer than I expected to reach Rome. What I had thought would be one month in Italy has now turned into two and after starting in Milan at the beginning of April, I can’t seem to get further south than Tuscany at this point…but I am not complaining. Two visits in Venice and then Tuscany, all within one month, are fine by me and suit my idea of life quite well. So I departed from Villa Otium in Volterra, saying a second round of farewells and very-likely-see-you-soon’s to the owners Maurizia and Giulio, and I went to Siena for two nights.
Siena has turned out to be the part of my trip so far that has given me a couple new experiences. It is where I first experienced couch surfing and it’s where I realized that I need to be reading up on the history of places I am going to visit, and preferably before I arrive. Both new realizations have been great new tools I am excited to have with me as I continue traveling for several months more and they’ve really enhanced my traveling and how I experienced Siena for the first time.
Now, if you haven’t heard of couch surfing, please get caught up because it’s a craze that has been around now for several years and is worldwide. And I really mean, worldwide. The online community is based on a website system that allows you to create your own account and profile so you can offer to host people visiting where you live and you can connect with people to host you in places that you are visiting. When you’re hosted, it may be a guest room and bed that you get or, as in most cases, it’s a nice comfy couch. And this is all FREE! It’s true, it’s legit’. I promise, cause I now know first-hand. I learned about it a couple of years ago and friends kept encouraging me to use it for the current trip that I’m on now. Needless to say, I wish I had used it sooner in my trip and am glad for the chance to use it now. It never hurts to save money while you travel and I especially love to travel by experiencing local culture through meeting people who live where I’m visiting.
My first official host was Giuseppe. His friends, and that now includes me, call him Peppe. Originally from Sicily, he’s now been living in Siena for going on six years and moved there for work as a biologist. The flat he so kindly shared with me is conveniently located just along the bottom of the medieval wall that surrounds the historic city-center of Siena. I had a comfortable couch on the first floor and he even made me coffee in the mornings and an amazing dinner of spaghetti alla carbonara that was delizosio! The couch surfing website made it easy to learn about him on his profile, which included pictures he had on his account, the references from others he had hosted before, and interests he has. It was nice to see that we have a lot of common interests like traveling, playing guitar, and liking good food and wine. Bingo! – New friend and a host. We had great discussions about how cultures and mentalities differ not only throughout the European countries so strongly, but even within Italy itself especially the area he is from in Sicily.
I had one full day to explore my latest Italian town. What I had previously learned from Maurizia in Villa Otium is that she loves Siena for an annual event they have called Palio di Siena. It’s one of the oldest traditions in the world that involves horses and there are two that take place each summer, one in July and one in August. The Palio is a horse race that involves the historic different contrade, or city wards. These neighborhoods are the most amazing example of community that dates back to Medieval times and continues in traditions even today. Different neighborhoods are composed of the long winding steep narrow streets and the community is more like a family. When someone is in need, health or material wise, they all come together to help that person. Each contrade is represented by an animal that is on the coat of arms specific to their name. Somewhere on the main street of each neighborhood is a common house that is used as their “Societa” building. Keep in mind that the houses are grouped together in single long rows of old stone buildings, almost like row homes in San Francisco, but far older and in my personal opinion, even more fascinating and beautiful.
I started my journey on a small narrow street that quickly went up towards the top of the village, giving me a good steep walk. About half-way up I started seeing emblems on the walls and when an open door appeared that had a sign reading “Bruco Societa”, what do you suppose I did? I went inside of course. The place was open and empty and somewhat reminded me of a university study room or café, but with no coffee. I walked to the back where there was another open door that opened out to a gloriously green lawn spread out in terraces. A large trellis was off to one side and gorgeously overgrown with bright green grape vines that not only spread out in a thick natural roof, but also dangled from the corners and into the middle of the small patio it covered. No one was there unfortunately, but I will jump ahead and let you know that at the end of the day I went back there, drawn by the sound of the drums that I could hear beating like a drum line. At that time, there were about a dozen people who didn’t really pay me any mind as I watched the boys, ages 8 – 20 it looked like, who were throwing flags. Some of them were catching it solo and others were throwing the flags to each other. This is a big part of the Palio races and takes serious training, coordination, and commitment. It’s also a long-held honor and family tradition to perform these flags for their respective neighborhoods.
But getting back to the beginning of the day and my excursion of Siena…
The center of the town is spread out along the top of the hill that it encompasses and in the very middle is the Piazza del Campo where the Palio races take place each year. This is also where the Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) is located and the Torre del Mangia and Palazzo Pubblico. When the races are not taking place, the oval-shaped piazza is lined with cafes and restaurants and the typical carts of tourist items to buy. As I sat and ate lunch in the outdoor patio of one of the restaurants, I also looked up Siena on Wikipedia on my iPhone. Reading through the basic history of the town enhanced what I was seeing. For starters, there were numerous statues throughout the town of a wolf nursing two baby boys. This represents the myth of the founding of Rome by twin brothers Remus and Romulus who were found and taken care of by the mother wolf. Make sure to check out and read the entire story to learn more about how Rome was founded and gained its name.
Aside from the wonderful history and architecture, Siena also has the University of Siena, which is well-known for degrees in Biology and a number of international studies. I met three young ladies who are studying there and are friends of Giuseppe. We joined them for dinner and drinks the night I arrived and had a great time learning about the different places we are all from – America, Austria, Sicily, Germany…the multicultural atmosphere was fantastic.
All in all, I’m very grateful to Maurizia for encouraging me to visit Siena. What she taught me about the Palio and the historic city also helped prepare me for enjoying its historical significance even more. And I have Giuseppe to thank for being my first couch surfing host. It was a great experience.