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Siena is one of the great small cities of Italy

Siena sits high and radiant over dreamy Tuscan countryside. It is one of the great small cities of Italy, best known for the Palia, the thunderous horse race, bareback, three times around the huge, sloping main square. Add to that the source of the rich reddish brown paint and a masterpiece of Renaissance art, an exquisite inlaid marble mosaic floor.

Siena sits high and radiant over dreamy Tuscan countryside. It is one of the great small cities of Italy, best known for the Palia, the thunderous horse race, bareback, three times around the huge, sloping main square. Add to that the source of the rich reddish brown that produced the dramatic, deep shadows of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro. And, revealed when a protective carpet is rolled back every autumn, a masterpiece of Renaissance art, an exquisite inlaid marble mosaic floor.

I first heard of Siena from my paintbox at school. Burnt sienna (and, confusingly, it does have two “ns”) was one of the Renaissance artist Rembrandt’s favourite pigments. It conjured up a dark, brooding elegance in the name alone. They found it not far from the city which gave the colour its name.
From the Renaissance, through to the 20th century, clays containing iron oxides were mined close to the town of Siena on the slopes of Monte Amiata, near Arcidosso. They were first used by prehistoric people, to colour their cave paintings. Later artists fired the raw material to turn it a rich reddish brown. It produced the dark, eloquent browns of Rembrandt’s portraits, the dramatic, deep shadows of Caravaggio’s chiaroscuro.

The Monte Amiata clays were exhausted by the 1940s; today they are mined mainly in Sardinia and in the USA, in the Appalachians. Many artists now use a synthetic version.
The burnt sienna legacy can be found at the boutique resort Terre Gialle, near Siena. This was once a booming production centre for the famous paint. They have made a decorative lake out of one of the original mines. 

Once everyone would have walked, or ridden to Siena. Sigeric the Serious, the Archbishop of Canterbury made an 11th Century return trip to Rome, and his more extreme travel option of walking is available today on a signposted route.
You may retrace his steps, if only on a short section, by the Via Francigena. It runs from Canterbury  to Rome, via France, Switzerland and Italy, passing on to the SE Italian port of Brindisi. It has the same long distance route status as the much better known Way of St. James, to Santiago de Compostela.
We reached Siena by car. Like Sigeric, we took in the same wondrous views of the Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta. It dominates the city’s main hill, rising above a sea of terracotta roofs.

The cathedral is visible from all points of the city. Inside is a marvel to compare with many of Italy’s better-known cathedral treasures. Every autumn they roll up a protective carpet. Underneath is a masterpiece of Renaissance art, an exquisite inlaid marble mosaic floor telling mainly Biblical stories. It was the work of 40 artists, working between the 14th and 16th centuries. 
A joint ticket takes you into the adjoining Museo dell’Opera. Here there are works by Bernini and Donatello. The Maesta screen from 1311 is the largest altarpiece ever painted.
Inside the Museo there is a 131 step climb up to the Facciatone terrace. From here take it the superb view of Siena and the Tuscan countryside, which presses close in the the little city.

There is a thunderous, dramatic, twice a year event in Siena, played out under the great tower of the Palazzo Comunale (Town Hall). It is an older, and possibly greater, race even than the Grand National and the Derby.
In July and August ten horses and riders, representing the Sienese contrade, the city’s ancient districts, dash, bareback, three times around the huge, sloping main square, Piazza del Campo. This is the illustrious and very ancient Palia. It actually takes place over 4 days, with a schedule of trials and other preliminaries. The race itself is on the fourth day.
The event opens with a blessing ceremony and a parade in historical costume through the city. Proceeding are concluded with a church service. Watching the furious, frantic race is free, but it is enormously popular, so it pays to arrive early. Or you might book a place on a balcony facing onto the Piazza.

This is a perfect spot for a picnic, on days when the race isn''t being run. You feel you are at the very heart of an immense cultural phenomenon, the blossoming of the arts and architecture across Europe.
We sat on the smooth and venerable steps of the nearby church Chiesa di San Cristoforo for our lunch. We stocked up with the real taste of the province at the city centre food emporium (the word shop doesn''t do it justice) Consorzio Agrario di  Siena, run by the local farmers’ association.
Our picnic included cinta senese finocchiona (fennel-flavored pork sausage) pecorino sheep''s milk cheese and local pan co’santi, a sweet brown bread, made with raisins and walnuts. Then to Nannini''s, for coffee and  to sample Siena’s tastes of paradise. Cavallucci, little horses, are biscuits the shape of  half apricots, made with flour and honey. Lozenge-shaped ricciarelli are a sublime mix of marzipan, orange peel and candied citron. Panforte is the local spicy bread. There are several Nanninis. Other cafes worth a visit include Nocino, Le Campane and Bini.

A medieval pilgrim’s stopping place in Siena was Santa Maria della Scala, across from the cathedral, and now a museum, where the traveller would be offered soup and a bed. A more modern form of pilgrim might be the cyclist. He, or she, might visit the city on the route EuroVelo 5. It runs 2,400 miles from London to Rome, and on to the foot of Italy.
It’s an appropriate stop on the route. Siena is a leader in the field of “take it easy tourism”. It won first prize at the International Go Slow Competition for its Trenonatura steam train trips. They run from the city, through the glorious Tuscan countryside of folding hills topped with cypresses, past Monte Antico and through Val d’Orcia to various destinations, on lines closed years ago to regular services.
In an ambitious programme of themed trips, passengers are dropped off for a few hours at towns en route to taste the local pecorino cheese, sample freshly-pressed olive oil, and to visit antiques fairs, mushroom festivals and truffle markets. Trains run throughout the year apart from a high summer break, when there is a risk of sparks starting line-side fires. Asciano is worth a visit at any time for its Etruscan Museum and the Museum of Sacred Arts.

www.terresiena.it/en


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