While tourists shop in the flea market near the bus station, and snap photos in the main piazza in front of Il Campo, turn off onto any random street and find the heart of Siena, the Contradas. Dr. Dominic Pacyga, professor of History at Columbia College Chicago and author of several books, tells our group of students in a brief lecture that Siena has 19 neighborhoods called Contradas, or districts, and each Contrada races in a horse race through the city called the Palio each each summer. Pacyga also says, “In Siena, when your child is born they are first baptized at the Duomo of Siena and then at your Contrada’s church.” Very local.
I take off on my own through the hills and streets of Siena. The neighborhood aspect of the city fascinates me, since Chicago’s neighborhoods are my favorite thing about Chicago, where I live and go to school. I first see a fountain with a baby riding a turtle and think it’s odd until I see little spray painted turtles on walls and then read “Contrada della Tortuca” above a set of doors. I turn down a street and suddenly I am in a different neighborhood.
While wandering, I stumble upon Even Bertolozzi Caredio’s shop and studio in Contrada della Pantera, the district of the panther. He creates original Sienese art with gold leaf letters, scenes, and Jewish art. “It takes me five days to finish these small pieces,” he explains as points to the partially finished paintings while he shows me around his studio, which is next door to his shop. There are antique books and fabrics in his studio, along with glass doors that open up to a garden oasis.
I ask him if I can go outside, and Caredio says, “The door is open, look around for as long as you like.” I step outside to a stone patio, I climb the stairs and pass through the garden gates, Caredio points to the kittens napping in straw near my feet and we both laugh. He goes back inside and I pass under trees and past tomato plants to a magnificent view of the city and the hilly Tuscan countryside. I soak in the view for a while and go inside to thank him and let him close up for the two-hour afternoon break.
I decide to go inside the Duomo in Siena, and it is well worth it. The Duomo in Florence is stark and plain inside, contrasting with it’s exterior, but in Siena, the inside is the most magnificent part. The ceiling looks like the night sky, midnight blue and golden stars, while the walls are frescoed in bold colors and the altar is brilliant gold. The floor is made of marble and stone mosaics of the Contradas symbols and Biblical stories. Sculptures of every Pope since Peter line the walls, and even the construction zones have murals covering them. I particularly love the giant old hymnals and bibles on display with imaginative calligraphy turning letters into art.
Bathrooms are a strange thing to rave about, but the bathrooms in the Duomo of Siena are worth mentioning. Though you have to pay 50 cents to use them, there is always an attendant who cleans after each person, so the private toilets are clean and stocked with toilet paper. Most of the time I didn’t want to have to pay a fee to use a toilet in Italy, but each experience I had when I did pay was far better than when I didn’t.
Finally, my last stop of the day is the Tuscan Wine School, a recently opened shop and classroom not too far from Il Campo. I take a wine tasting class taught by Kim, an American Ex-Pat who has been working with the Slow Food movement for years and helped start the University of Gastronomics in northern Italy. She gives our class a complete lesson on wine from it’s history in Tuscany, dating back to the Etruscans, to how the grapes are grown and harvested for each type of wine. We then learn how to taste and know what we’re drinking. The class was excellent, delicious red and white wines were paired with cheeses and chocolates and I feel confident about wine tasting after only a two-hour class. In the end Kim says, “It doesn’t matter what you pair your wine with, drink what you like, that’s all that matters.”
Siena is a city worth digging into, each neighborhood has something to offer and the people are friendly and down to earth. Exploring is one of my favorite things about traveling, there is no plan or tour and it’s all an adventure where treasures are waiting to be discovered.