Wonderful Italy

Exploring Italy via our travels — places, people, things…

The Palio of Siena

On July 2, 2007 we experienced the Palio! This exuberant pageant, centuries ancient and pitting the 17 Contrade of Siena against each other in a 90 second dash of a horse race in the Piazza del Campo, cannot be caught in a few paragraphs. For us, being in Siena for this event felt dream-like, since we’ve wanted to go for many years and one of Keith’s graduate school advisors had written a book on the topic decades back.

The Palio is really just a culmination of a full year’s worth of events among Contradioli, members of the district guilds of the town. There are street dinners and other festive events after the race each year, but before long the Contrade begin planning for next year. Costumes might be redesigned, strategies for the race planned, jockeys one might hire discussed. Fund-raising meals, sales and auctions are held. In April, young drummers and flag teams begin training and the echoing of drums is heard throughout Siena’s narrow cobbled streets. In May a ceremonial lottery determines which Contrade will take part, for the circuit can only accommodate ten riders and jockeys — seven won’t run. Streets bedecked with elaborately painted lights and guild flags become the norm in June, for the race is now just weeks away.

Finally, in the last few days of on June, Siena is given over. Many central streets are blocked, the huge Chianina white oxen to tow the ceremonial cart bearing the Palio banner are stabled right off the main square, race horses are sequestered lest some treachery befall them, and trial runs are staged in the Piazza. The square itself is transformed, into a race course set off by stout wooden rails, lined with packed sand, surrounded by steeply tiered bleachers. The glitterati of Siena will look down on the spectacle from the balconies of the elaborate palazzi that surround Campo, each balcony now featuring hanging banners of various colors.

Luckily, our apartment was only a five minute walk from Campo, so we could make our way to the plaza around 2pm and still hope to find standing room. We knew that once inside the inner ring we would not be able to leave until the race was over around 8pm, so we took water and snacks, reading material, our hiking binoculars, and some picnic cloths to sit on. Time passed. Families from Belgium, South Africa and France were near us, as were many Italians. Soon the crowds thickened to standing room only, a sea of people such as we’d never experienced. About 5pm the slow paced Palio procession entered the piazza and made a circuit – a two hour process. The various entities processing included town, regional and state dignitaries, representatives of all the medieval guilds, delegates from towns that had come to Siena’s aid in the battle of Montaperti (1260 A.D. — info at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Montaperti ), contrada no longer in existence, the seven that would not be racing, and finally the ten horses and riders competing today. Good thing we brought snacks!

After about ten efforts to line up the impatient horses and three false starts, the race began. Two horses fell on the first turn, the jockeys unhurt and the horses running with the pack. Two laps, then three, 90 seconds gone, and the winner was……well, the initial call was the Pantera (Panther) district, but after a minute or two of confusion, its flag was pulled back into the Palazzo Publico and out came the flag for Oca (Goose) — disappointed Pantera fans stopped running around the race course and were replaced by Ocaioli – members of the Goose district. It was a jubulent time, a great time to belong to the Oca Contrada. We made our way home, but the city of Siena was up almost all night with drums, bells ringing (even at 2:30 a.m.), celebrating in the streets, and with hundreds of Sienese donning Oca green and yellow scarves if they had any connection to this Contrada. For the next few days it seemed ever third person in Siena, down to infants being pushed in prams, wore the Oca scarf.

The Palio has been the subject of dozens of books and hundreds of other publications — a couple of these include Alan Dundes’ and Alessandro Falassi’s La Terra in Piazza: An Interpretation of the Palio of Siena (Berkeley, Univ. of California Press, 1975) and Mauro Civai and Enrico Toti’s Palio: The Race of the Soul (Siena, Edizioni AL.SA.BA, 2002).


December 10, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Language and Culture, Siena | , , , | Leave a comment

St. Catherine of Siena

Saint Catherine of Siena

May 6, 2007

The bells of San Domenico church just sounded for their 9am ringing. This is one of Siena’s landmark churches, just a bit more than a football field’s length from our apartment, with its massive orange-red brick presence standing 6 or 7 stories tall, and the bell tower higher than that. This church dominates one entrance to the city and its bells punctuate the mornings: at 7am, 7:30 and 9:00, again at 12:00 – cheery, raucous, though no doubt there is pattern in this ringing (a “tune”) that means something, even if we cannot decipher it, except as a call to mass.

This is a church of the Domenican order (following rule of St. Benedict, 5th C and the first “order” of monks recognized by the Catholic church). Built in the 1100’s, it was probably on a site where a smaller church stood, and before that it was likely a Roman temple – this is a common pattern. In fact, Siena’s main cathedral is known to have been built over the Roman temple of Minerva which stood there – sadly, no trace remains of that temple.

In San Domenico, cavernous and immensely tall inside, is a side chapel dedicated to Saint Catherine of Siena, who died in the late 1200’s. She was born just a block or two from here, and thus San Domenico was her family’s church. Caterina Benincasa was from a middle class Sienese family, practical-minded business people in the cloth trade. But from early childhood Caterina was unusual and drawn to religious observance and visions. After much protest, her family consented and allowed her to follow a religious life. She became a Domenican “tertiary” (not a nun, a sort of lay associate of the Domenicans).

In her short life (she was not yet forty when she died, essentially starving herself to death) she visited and discussed theology with numerous popes, and worked hard to end the schism that divided the papacy between Avignon and Rome. She wrote hundreds of letters, about 370 of which survive – testament to her political action and strong and somewhat odd religious beliefs (blood was a particular fixation). Today, Catherine is patron saint of Italy (along with St. Francis) and of the entire European Union. She was reportedly the most important and powerful woman of the entire middle ages.

Some of the many miracles attributed Catherine happened in San Domenico, including her receiving the stigmata (scars and marks similar to those Jesus suffered on the cross). Her chapel at San Domenico houses relics including her head and one finger (this is Italy!), plus items such as a small whip she used on herself.

The Benincasa family house eventually had a shrine and small church built over it – but some of it is preserved, including part of the kitchen and, most moving, Catherine’s bedroom. After her religious visions began she was allowed to live in a small stone room, sleep on the floor with a rock for a pillow, and to pray day in and out. The room, decorated with a few of her things, sits screened off from the rest of the house, which has been painted with frescoes depicting main points of Catherine’s life.

This past April 29th, Catherine’s feast day was celebrated in Siena with costumed processions through town to her chapel in San Domenico. That evening we went to a gala ceremony in Siena’s main square, Piazza del Campo where throngs of onlookers watched the 17 Contrade (district guilds) march in with elaborately costumed flag and drum corps, past formations representing every branch of the military standing at attention. On the podium in front of Siena’s renowned 13th century town hall, the Cardinal and Bishop were holding up the reliquary with Catherine’s finger to bless them.

Our photos show San Domenico as viewed from our front window. Also here is the procession along the street below our bedroom window with Siena’s Bishop and Cardinal, Anne standing at the window watching things while grading papers from one of our classes here, and in no. 245, our 2nd floor apartment, which is on the corner, the window is open (just behind the flagpole) — odd to be so bound into a brick and stone urban setting, but quite in the midst of it all too, interesting new exp. for us. And several of the flags and ceremonies for Catherine in the piazza on the 29th.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Art and the Arts | 1 Comment

An Adventure in Murlo

An Adventure in Murlo

May 10, 2007

Last weekend’s adventure was to Murlo, a tiny ring of a castle-town some 20 miles south of Siena. Anne and I had plotted out a loop walk which could be done on Sunday, despite the lack of busses to the countryside. Luckily, the local rail line from Siena southwest toward Grosseto passes this mountainous area, and equally fortunate although unlikely seeming to us, the tiny abandoned station at La Befa is still a stop for several trains a day.

Two students in our study abroad program, Caroline and Alyssa, avid walkers and joggers, were interested in our country excursions and wanted to join us. We agreed to meet at Siena’s train station at noon on Sunday 6th May. We all bought round-trip tickets to La Befa (€2.70 one way) and made our way to track number two. As the 20 minute ride took us past seas of deep green wheat covering the rolling hills descending from Siena, we began to wonder if the train would actually stop at the station, or perhaps we had to let the conductor know there were passengers for a station that was virtually never used?

When we stopped at Buonconvento, the only station before ours, I hopped off the train to speak to the conductor. He assured me we would stop at La Befa in just 7 more minutes, but that we needed quickly to move to the first car in the train since the platform at La Befa was short and only those on the first car could exit. We scrambled through several cars to the front and a couple minutes later got off and stood watching our train head south.

Stazione Murlo, as the rusted barely legible sign says, consists of a weed overgrown platform and several stuccoed buildings which feel boarded up. A house with fenced yard next door had an aging dog that looked like a shaved Old English Sheepdog – with a bark so deep it was below baritone.

We walked up the tree-lined gravel road to La Befa itself, a hamlet with about a dozen houses, mostly restored old stone and brick places, charming with spring flowers. An 11th Century chapel, locked tight, had a sign saying its art works had been removed to a museum in Siena. A quarter mile east of this settlement and near the tracks are the ruins of a 1st C AD Roman villa and bath – La Befa used to be a Roman town. Except for that villa, which Anne and I explored on a walk a few years back, there are no signs of this vanished world.

Our hike began above the town, the trail (its start handily marked by an Italian Hiking Club marker) heading off into fairly wild woods following the Crevole river along the roadbed of what was once a small mining railroad. Along the route are interpretive signs in Italian describing flora, fauna and geology of this area, which has clays and rocks from the old sea floor some 160 million years ago (Cretaceous, age of dinosaurs). We were serenaded, as on almost all our Tuscan walks, by a symphony of song birds, but did not see other wildlife. Reportedly it includes foxes, weasels, hedgehogs, badgers, porcupines, three or four kinds of snakes including the poisonous viper (an “asp”!), and many smaller critters. We walked fast, a bit too fast for me to fully appreciate the many wildflowers, and made good time, coming out in about two hours to Le Miniere di Murlo, where ruins of the old mine plant tantalizingly provide no clue as to what was once mined. A twenty minute walk steeply uphill on the small road brought us to Murlo, our destination.

Murlo, a walled ring town only 150 yards in diameter, commands a view over the plains north toward Siena as well as east and south. Several small rivers diverge here, and this was a defensive fort allied to Siena in the middle ages, later became a palace for the Bishop of Siena, and most recently is a “borgo,” a tiny town. Besides its beauty and charm, what makes this a really interesting place is that before Murlo was a medieval Italian fort it was the center of a major Etruscan settlement, a connection point in a network of Etruscan trade routes that linked important centers including Chiusi, Fiesole (above Florence) and Volterra.

This was the heart of the great Etruscan high culture that dominated central Italy from the 8th to about the 1st C BCE, “before the current era.” Roman civilization borrowed freely from the Etruscans (it is thought that the first Roman kings were in fact Etruscan), who themselves were in contact with and influenced by ancient Greece. Recently, a major archaeological project excavated the hilltop just over from Murlo, uncovering the only Etruscan villa ever found substantially undisturbed. That is, its ruins were uncovered – the house and outbuildings had burned and been buried by the Etruscan inhabitants in 600 BC. The former Sienese bishop’s palace in Murlo is now a small, ultra-modern museum devoted to displaying the finds from Poggio Civitate, the name given the hill with the excavated Etruscan villa.

Among the wonderful displays are small gemstone carved sphinxes just an inch across, gold work and incised ivory or bone items of exceptional delicacy (also small), black decorated pottery plates on small pedestals or with elaborate animal or god-figure handles, reconstructions of how the villa and other buildings looked and, most exceptional, half life-size terracotta figures wearing what look like huge Mexican sombreros. Whether these were Etruscan gods, ancestor figures, or creatures from folklore is not clear, and likely will remain unknown. These enigmatic seated figures with arms crossed in lap seemed to have been mounted on the roofs of the villa.

We could not forget that we had four miles to go to get back to La Befa for our return train at 6:56 pm, especially as it was the last train of the day. Murlo’s only business, a small but excellent restaurant built into the perimeter wall and with a nice view out, had just closed for the afternoon, disappointingly. We did use their restrooms, and the great fragrances made some of us wish we could have ordered pizza. But we sat and ate our bag lunch in the tiny deserted piazza. As we did so, a man strolled by and said good day, and we began chatting. We found that this elegant white-haired retired businessman had bought and restored one of the houses built into the ring wall, after having come here from his home in Milan on vacation over a dozen years before. His wife had not wanted to leave Milan, but he moved here and now lives with a girlfriend. We were treated to a tour of his apartment, itself many centuries old and carefully restored to maintain this character, keeping the original worm-eaten (but now preserved) beams, old terra cotta floor and roof tiles, with lintels over the doors still showing hand-adzed marks. The view was superb and on a clear day he could see Siena’s towers and spires on the hill in the distance.

We turned down his generous offer to drive us part way back to La Befa, and set out on the other half of our loop hike. As it turned out, our trail took us right through the archaeological area on the next hill, the old Etruscan settlement. I was especially interested to see if any house foundations or other clues were visible. Sadly, we had to make fairly quick time if we wanted to catch our train home, so it was not possible to linger more than a few minutes. My main impression, other than a weighty feeling that I felt to be the presence of truly ancient human settlement and hundreds of generations of people living complex lives, was of low scrub oak forest canopy over tantalizingly up and down disturbed ground, lumps and hill-lets, mounds, perhaps old terraces.

What used to be here? I suspect it was mainly cleared and open 2,500 years ago, that farming of olives, grapes and grain went on in terraced hillside plots and down on the lowlands – but all I could see were lumps and bumps! Their lives, their loves, philosophies, children’s laughter and play…. all erased, or nearly so!! I’d like to go back one day and sit among them with a bag lunch and poke around a bit more.

Our winding trail home passed by deserted semi-ruined farm houses, agriturismo (bed and breakfast establishments in renovated farm houses), a small shrine to San Biagio (patron saint of sore throats), and an 11th C church now housing a “New World” spiritual retreat center, before arriving back at La Befa almost where our outbound trail started. We were an hour early! This cluster of houses has one commercial establishment, a small coffee bar. No coffee back when the Etruscans and Romans farmed here. Wonder what stimulant they drank, if any?

For our part, we had coffee and snacks, served us by two Nigerian women who told me the pleasant sounding language they were speaking was Eddo, one of Nigeria’s many tribal languages. Finding it a bit mysterious to encounter Nigerians working in a coffee bar, especially in a town that is far removed from anywhere, we continued down the gravel road to the Murlo/La Befa station. The baritone dog barked listlessly a few times, but there was still no sign of any people in this out of the way place.

Our joke, as we waited for our train, was a) will it really come? and b) will it actually stop? We heard it coming and, playfully, Anne, Caroline and Alyssa put out thumbs in hitchhiking mode as the three-car train rounded the curve and pulled up — I snapped a photo. This tiny but ultra modern train that plies the Grosseto-Siena-Florence route took us in comfort back to Siena’s station, just 23 minutes from the wild, exotic and ancient Etruscan/Roman world of these canopied woodlands near the Crevole and Ombrone rivers.

May 14, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Walks and Hikes | 2 Comments

A Walk in the Montagnola Senese

A Walk in the Montagnola Senese – Monteriggioni to Santa Colomba

Keith and Anne – 22 April 2007

On Sunday 22nd April, Anne and I had a great exploration in the countryside, the second thus far this spring of our longish (10mi or a bit more) walks following a guidebook written by some English walkers and using Club Alpino Italiano (CAI) hiking maps. Because there is restricted bus service to the little towns around Siena on Sundays, we caught the train to our start point, Monteriggioni station. Our only morning option was the 6:39am train from Siena, which we thought was a tad early, but of course ok. So, next day we rose at 5:45am, well before the San Domenico bells, walking the 20 minute route down to the station in the cool and quiet of a Siena not yet awake.

Our train was bound for Firenze but our destination was the first stop, making our trip just 12 minutes long. The small station serving Monteriggioni and Castellina in Chianti is bypassed by most trains going to and coming from Florence and only a few local runs serve this un-personed station. It was still quite chilly at 6:50 when we got off and began our two mile walk to the start of our hike. The small road was scenic and provided a nice bit of serendipity when we discovered that our route was right along the ancient trade and pilgrimage road, the Via Francigena, which was used widely from about 900 AD onward by northern Europeans going to Rome or the Holy Land. Dotted along it everywhere are small fortresses and castles, way points for travelers and defensible spots in the never ending wars between Siena and Florence. So, we were happy to find, only a half mile from the train station, an interpretive sign and small gravel road leading to a hill on which sat a ruined castle dating from about 1000, but partly built of cut stones salvaged from the Roman and Etruscan periods, so surely this hill with its 360 degree views was home to earlier defenses going back at least to 800BC. Another hill settlement just nearby (per interpretive signs in both Italian and English) was excavated by archaeologists some years ago – this was an Etruscan village, now no sign of which seems left. We managed to see this site a day after our forest walk, but other than some disturbed ground and tantalizing hints in the small oak undergrowth that humans lived here in the past, we could not really “see” the village. We felt its aura instead, eerily.

Our hike start point was the gem-like castle-town of Monteriggioni. This ring of cut grey stone walls with a symmetrically placed set of towers sits stark and like a diadem or crown on its own hill. Monteriggioni, captured on many postcards and calendars each year, commands a hilltop site with views in all directions, and particularly overlooking a broad plain to the west, through which any approaching groups or army would be likely to come. Just to the southwest is the wooded hill which was the site of the Etruscan village excavated recently. Our route today would pass near this site and tomorrow (when we returned to find Keith’s dropped pocket watch) we would have the chance to explore it a bit, though as noted, we could not find the traces of house foundations said to be there. We’d skipped breakfast today due to our early start, so the Bar dell’ Orso (Bar of the Bear) near the gravel road leading to Monteriggioni was our first destination. The cheerful barrista (female) made a creamy doppio caffe macchiato for me and cappuccino for Anne. I noticed that another bar customer downed her espresso in 40 seconds, more or less normal for coffee drinking while standing in Italian coffee establishments, though we lingered a bit longer, observing the scene and eating our pastries.

As we walked into the rear gate of Monteriggioni several tourist shops were just setting out their signs, and we passed a 4 star (and reportedly $250/night) hotel within the walls. This walled town-let was here in its present form from at least 1100 and is mentioned by name by Dante in his Divine Comedy (completed about 1300). We hoped to get a second coffee in the town, but its only bar was still closed since it was only 7:30a.m. by now. A sign by the main gate, said that this afternoon guides in medieval costume would lead tours of the town and the castle walls with their spectacular views. This would be enjoyable, but for another time.

We left by the eastern gate, the Porta Romana, our road curving down the back side of the hill, passing a campground with rented campers, just a flat field really. Soon we came to the gravel road that was our route, cutting to the right up towards the woods. We had noticed a group of four walkers with backpacks ahead of us, and in a few minutes, at the first trail branching, we caught up with these Dutch hikers, older folks like us, and hiking the Via Francigena to Siena today. We compared maps, as they were doubtful at the crossroads. They set off while we changed into shorts, and we did not see them again – not sure if they hiked the same route or not.

Our route was a north to south traverse of much of the wooded area west of Siena called the Montagnola Senese, the Sienese Mountain Woods. This mixed oak forest has probably been logged for thousands of years, albeit selectively, and feels quite wild and only slightly used. Our hike was on small cart tracks and sometimes trails, and provided an interestingly varied route. Incredible wildflowers, old walls, oak and mixed woods, meadows, ruined ancient farmsteads, tiny villages of 4-5 houses and churches dating to the crusades and earlier. Along the way there were many signs of rooting by wild pigs, cingiale. Not a bad choice today, thanks to Anne!

I was fascinated to notice, as we walked along, that the path itself was along old wagon roads for many miles. Though the path often felt narrow and overgrown, and was rugged and nothing like a road for carts, as I looked down over the miles I could see deep ruts into the rock itself, sometimes two of them, though often only one was visible. The cart wheels were spaced about 3 ½ to 4 feet apart. Some of the ruts were 8″ or more deep, cut into pure rock by metal tired wooden cart wheels over centuries. I tried to get photos of the ruts.

This silent echo of the ancient forest felt to me a bit like seeing wagon tracks still going down the sides of alluvial fans in Death Valley. But those tracks, archaic in the western United States, are only 150 years old, while those we walked along today I am sure were roads used at least from Etruscan times (800-500 BC) to cart produce, crops, animals and other goods back and forth between scattered hill town settlements. Given that human settlement in Europe dates back more than 100,000 years, it is virtually certain that these paths were used for a very long time, well before the “Johnny come lately” Etruscans gave their name to a small slice of the region’s history.

Our hike was about six hours in all, including our many photo and “ooh and aah” stops and a picnic lunch spread out beside Costa, an abandoned stone farmhouse near the village of Colli Ciupi. It was a great day of ups and downs, and with a lot of consulting of both map and pages copied from our guidebook, as there were lots of decoy trails and roads that one is not wanting to follow. The weather was perfect, shorts and tee shirts after it warmed up. By about 1:30 we came to our end destination, Santa Colomba (“Saint Dove” is a gloss, though not likely the right one), a small town with a church dating from at least 1100. Interesting that the history of all the little hamlets and places is only vaguely known – in this case, the church is first mentioned in tax records about 1100, the first recorded mention, though it was likely there much earlier, and of course the village was also.

Santa Colomba itself is just one street with houses, a social hall (noisy as we passed by but everyone was in the back room, perhaps playing cards), and a coffee bar. The latter was open, but with lights off to save power, and we chatted with the proprietress for a while, a kind woman who sold us a Fanta, and helpfully spoke in slow and clear Italian, telling us a little about the place.  Besides Italians, there are several retired folks from other parts of the world living up the hill, an area of new and expensive villetas (modern brick houses, most of two or more stories, some with swimming pools).  One of them, in his 80’s or 90’s, now speaks great Italian and still drives his car to town, she added.

Thanking her, and using the bathroom to wash up, we walked a half mile up the hill to the far end of the bus route where she assured us the bus would turn around and stop and we could sit in the shade. Along the way the houses were impressively big and modern, one or two of them with Mercedes parked in the drive – clearly a bedroom area for affluent Sienese or Florentines we suspected. At the top we spread out our hulus, sharing an orange, and reading in the shade of a big oak. A small deceased snake diverted me for a short photo opportunity, and we then passed a pleasant hour before the small orange bus arrived as scheduled. This being Sunday, there were only a couple running to Siena, one at 3:30pm, another at 8pm. We did not find the thought of waiting 5 more hours very appealing, one reason we’d walked fairly fast today. Our 30 minute ride back to Siena was over many interesting and bumpy back roads, the driver zooming along as if late and the bus badly in need of new shock absorbers. About 4 pm we were deposited at Piazza Gramsci just a couple minutes walk from our apartment near San Domenico.

A fulfilling day full of adventures, history, great scenery, new wildflowers (including two types of orchid at the start of the walk). At home, after showers, we had the “tired but pleased with oneself feeling” — a good day’s adventure in the Sienese countryside along routes where the past is so layered and deep with history that most all of it is in fact utterly forgotten. All those dozens or likely hundreds of generations of “lives lived in obscurity” (but not obscure to those who lived them!) going all the way down.

Oh, and this bit of nature note: at Costa, the ruined ancient farmhouse where we had lunch, I was poking around in one of the stone and brick outbuildings and was surprised when I disturbed a snake just inside the threshold where I was about to put my foot. I had come upon a viper (vipera is the Italian name) about two and a half feet long, a poisonous snake related to our rattlesnakes and the asp of Cleopatra fame. Vipers are not too common and I felt fortunate to be able to watch it as it slithered along one rocky wall in the ruined barn trying to find a crack to escape into. I opted to watch instead of trying to take a photo in the shaded light, as I’d likely have not gotten it and not even seen it if I just fiddled with equipment. This viper was taupe color with light grey stripes, with an eerily triangular cross sectioned flat body, not unlike a sidewinder (which I’ve only seen in nature films though). Its triangular head, saying “poisonous,” was the stuff of bad dreams.

ksc 24 April 2007 — Siena

May 14, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany, Walks and Hikes | 1 Comment

Why Italy?

Hill towns in Tuscany, ribollita soup, great wines….I’m convinced already and we are just getting started!

January 9, 2007 Posted by | About Tuscany | 2 Comments