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Siena, Italy

Siena sits at the outskirts of Florence like her moody teenage brother. He’s nobility, but that doesn’t stop him from riding bareback, hell for leather, brawling up and down the streets fighting over which of his cousins gets to hang his logo on the flagpole.

Throughout antiquity, Siena and Florence (like all of Italy and all siblings) constantly squabbled over the glorious Chianti acres between them, each town trying to expand its borders. Eventually they decided that enough blood had been shed and they came to a gentleman’s agreement. They wanted to find a border that was fair to each side. Each town chose a knight and a horse and proposed that, simultaneously, each knight would ride from his hometown towards the rival town. Wherever the knights met – presumably the half-way mark – would delineate the final border.

But how to ensure that each knight began at the same time?

Each town chose a chicken.

This is because every morning like – clockwork – roosters crow. Siena chose a white rooster, and Florence a black. The day before the race, Siena fed its rooster well, provided his every need, and tucked him into his roost in preparation for a healthy morning crow.

Florence, on the other hand, put its rooster to bed early without his supper.

Needless to say, the black rooster woke first (assuming it slept at all) and began crowing for its breakfast. The knight from Florence was within seven miles of Siena when it met Siena’s knight.

Thus says the legend. Thus all Chianti wine belongs to Florence and carries a black rooster label. Thus the Duomo of Siena is striped in black and white like chickens checkers….


You can see Siena in a comfortable half day visit, but we were given exactly one hour to do our worst. I’ll explain why in a minute, but if all you have is an hour…get to the Piazza del Campo and then see the Duomo.

The Piazza del Campo is the heart of Siena, a fanning medieval centerpiece that hosts the twice-yearly Palio. This festival brings representatives from all 17 Siena contrada (parishes/districts) together in a wild horse race that will determine whose symbols will represent Siena. This ancient rivalry runs deep and as you wander the narrow winding streets, you can find their different animal symbols on flags, carvings, and souvenirs.

I myself was sorted into Gryffindor. The unicorn came in second place.

What I’m trying to say is that Renaissance Fairs and Medieval Times are alive and well in Italy.

The Duomo of Siena is gorgeous little cupcake of a cathedral. The facade is fascinating, with colored marble, mosaics, sculptures, different on every side. As you enter, two things grab your immediate attention: the bold striping of the columns and the sapphire blue with gold stars ceiling that they support. Immediately after, you realize you are being watched.

By the busts of 172 Popes, 36 emperors, 42 patriarchs and prophets, and finally, eight golden statues at eye level.

I guess they could have been admiring the floors.

The marble floor mosaics are covered most of the year, with only a few of the 56 panels available for viewing. We saw the “Death of Absalom” (1447), “Slaughter of the Innocents” (1481), one of “Elijah” (1500s), and “The She-Wolf of Siena” (1373). All were rendered from the cartoons of Sienese painters.

You must peek into the Piccolomini Library, a tiny side door we almost missed. This will be revisited in a later blog devoted entirely to books. And probably floors. Unlike huge basilicas elsewhere, I enjoyed the lavish details of this Duomo in a comfortable, personable setting.

Just as I considered trying out the choir stalls, we noticed the time.

In a way, we also experienced the Palio. We dashed madly through the streets trying to meet up with our tour on time. It’s small but there are no straight lines in Siena. We did a few laps.

Our tour guide was waiting, grimly counting bodies as we congregated. She had already left late from Florence and now she was determined to get us back on the bus and to our final destination, a winery for dinner. From the beginning, the odds were stacked against her.

The problem was (and this is one of several) that she would not slow to the pace of three elderly sisters who had signed up for the tour, or the couple from Australia who had two bad knees and a hip between them.

The Aussies had taken a tour yesterday from Florence, and “did anyone know whether they would once again be asked to walk from here, down a back street, through an alley and down a ramp to the tour bus because they weren’t ever going to do that again but it sure looked suspicious”.

Hubby, ever the chatty, helpful fellow, engaged the tour guide and watched as the dialogue confirmed the Australians’ worst fears. They were having none of it. The tour guide was helpless to change it. Hubby backed away and blended into the crowd.

Another concerned couple wanted to know how late we were returning from the tour because they had other plans and could not possibly be back later than ten. The tour guide mentioned that she was dependent upon several things outside of her control, including traffic. The couple threw down their gauntlet and marched back into the crowd.

We were delayed, waiting for two people who never showed up. We hiked our way to the tour bus and waited some more for the two knees and a hip to get on board.

At this point, our guide mentioned the three elderly sisters. “Good news,” she said as we sat down, “They are already at the winery waiting for us to join them.”

Apparently, they had been put into a cab and whisked directly to the end of the tour. And they were not pleased. On the bus that night, as we drove back to Florence, these spicy ladies used colorful expletives to explain in great detail their displeasure with Italy in general and tour guides in particular. They were leaving for home in the morning and never coming back.

“Goodness,” said a tourist three seats behind us, “You’d think she (the tour guide) could extend just a bit of Christian charity…”

But really, it could have all been solved with a chicken.

Touring Siena should be at the pace of a fat, content hen, picking along, scratching up treasures. The “White Rooster” tour.

Everybody faster should go with the “Black Rooster” group.

Dragon flag… Piazza del Campo Duomo of Siena Bell tower. Notice a pattern? Checker columns, night sky. Etched, carved, inlaid, immense floor panel. So much to see. Massive Pipe organ. When you step outside the medieval times, there is the rest of modern Siena…like leaving Disneyland and finding LA sitting there.
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