Another “spirited” drive in a taxi later and we find ourselves within the Walls of Siena town, at a tiny hotel we booked online called Antica Torre. It’s nice, very small but clean. The bathroom is tiny, you have to shuffle sideways down it to get past the sink and bidet to the toilet or shower. The aircon wasn’t working either, but I plugged it in and the room chille nicely.
The hotel claims to be a short walk to Piazza del Campo, home to the famous Palio race. The Palio is the reason we can only stay in Siena for two days, it gets pretty busy.
The walled city of Siena is a labyrinth of narrow streets, many of them hilly. Cars are restricted in the Walls but Terence are still enough of them about fitting through the smallest gaps. The walk to the Piazza took about 10-15 minutes, and when we walked in we could see the preparations for the Palio were well underway. Many of the shops and restaurants now have wooden bleachers up, covering the windows and moving the tables further from the shop. Around the cobbled central piazza us a wooden wall, chained around the concrete posts that would normally stand there alone. And the biggest change to the Piazza is that the walkway all around the outside of the Piazza is now sand. Thick sand – almost 2 inches worth in places – compacted down for the horses to race on.
Sitting in the Piazza having a late afternoon drink we discovered when the sand is not necessarily a good idea. It rained. And thundered. And rained some more. People scattered into the restaurants but when we emerged the sand was the slippiest sludge you have ever walked on. It caked your feet and was a messy gloop. You could see people leaving the Piazza washing shoe in puddles – us included.
As part of the Palio everywhere is brightly decorated in diferent colours. We don’t have a guidebook here, but believe the colours are that of the different Contrada in the town, different areas. We think there are a total of 16 Contrada but may well be wrong on that. On Sunday we saw a massive troop of blue and white costumed people with drums and flags. Lots of noise heralded their arrival onto the Piazza spilling out of the narrowest alley, before heading through another exit. We encountered a red and yellow troop in another part of the town, similarly noisy.
We spent hours roaming up and down the narrow streets, climing and descending and dodging madmen on scooters. We explored an old basilica and went to Il Duomi, an old cathedral which looks to be under restoration. The map we had was vague at best, and numerous times we ended up back at the Piazza for a bearing check.
Pictures are online here.
The worst loss of direction came in the dark to head back to the hotel. Foolishly I left the map on the table at the restaurant, and by the time I realised Surly the slow waiter would have cleared it. No problem, we could find our way.
The narrow streets though look very different at night, and it took me a while to find the hotel. Linda is useless at the best of times at navigating and she’d had 1/2 litre of Chianti by then! Find it we did though, and collapsed to rest weary feet after way too much walking.