Siena and the Tuscan countryside

Trip Start Dec 20, 2010
Trip End Dec 14, 2011

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Flag of Italy  , Tuscany,
Sunday, August 7, 2011

We had four lovely, relaxing days in Siena. It all started with a perfect bus ride from Rome which only took 3 hours, was perfectly on time, and was actually direct – the first direct bus I think we have ever caught. The scenery along the way was really lovely – lots of rolling hills, forests and perfectly perched Tuscan hill towns. I thought the hill towns might just been an Italian myth, but no, they really do exist. Everywhere you look, these tiny little fortified medieval towns cling to the hill tops with their castles and towers. Just gorgeous!

So Siena is located in central Tuscany, and is itself a hill town, albeit a bit bigger than most. The city is enclosed by city walls and is pedestrian only. The streets are beautiful – narrow and gently curving. The houses are all built of stone with mostly green wooden shutters. Being a medieval town, it is totally different in character to, say, Rome and different to most European cities we have seen so far. But walking around the streets I imagined it must look similar to little villages in the UK. Siena has a gorgeous plaza surrounded by large castle like buildings and the whole thing slopes around to form a sort of amphitheater shape. All around the outside were busy cafes and restaurants, but you can just sit in the middle and have a bottle of wine or a cup of gelato and soak up the lovely atmosphere. Siena is also famous for its amazing gothic cathedral. It was really impressive – the fašade was similar in style to the Sagrada (Gaudi in Barcelona), but inside was totally different. It was very dark and scary with hundreds of Pope faces looking down at you with their piercing glares. There were works of art by Donatello, Michelangelo and Bernini in here too.

Most of all, we enjoyed Siena as we didn't feel compelled to be tourists here. We just enjoyed going out for a coffee, or a gelato and watching the world go by. The first day here we ordered a litre of house wine and just sat in a narrow wee lane. In the evenings we would sit under the cathedral tower on a nice grassy patch and eat cheese and drink more wine. Seriously, the wine in this country has been fantastic and is incredibly cheap (i.e. 3 Euros for a good bottle from the supermarket). We had some nice meals here too, and although it wasn’t particularly expensive, it was noticeably more expensive than Rome.

Siena has had a really interesting history. Most notably, they have been long time rivals against Florence – hence why there are castles, fortifications, and towers everywhere in the Tuscan countryside and in all the villages. The rivalry still seems to survive (in a less violent way) to this day. But as you walk around Siena, you start to notice all these different flags everywhere and different coloured lamp posts around different parts of the city. After doing a bit of research, I learnt that since medieval times, Siena has had 17 different competing districts, each fiercely independent. Siena is a tiny city, so these districts are only meters apart from each other. Each district has its own name, its own coat of arms, its own flag and its own style of lamp post. The people still to this day seem strongly patriotic to their district and still have lingering allegiances to other districts (or lingering hatred) left over from medieval times. All of this patriotism is brought together every August when there is a very famous horse race called the Pailo where the 17 districts are represented. The celebrations apparently last for months.

For two of the four days we were here, we hired a car to drive around the Tuscan countryside. On the first day we went south of Siena and visited the towns of San Giovanni d’Asso, Montalcino, Pienza and Montepulciano. The scenery was undoubtedly Tuscan – rolling brown hills, big blue skies, massive historical stone homesteads, and picture postcard hill towns. The roads were narrow and winding, and mostly quite picturesque. San Giovanni was tiny and had just a truffle museum and views out over a massive abbey. Montalcino and Montepulciano were both classic hill towns and famous for wine (we brought two bottles here for my birthday – they ended up being very expensive bottles of wine though as we got a parking ticket here!)

But our favourite town in all of Tuscany was Pienza – it was tiny with narrow streets, filled with cheese shops and artists painting their canvases. It was quiet with not many tourists around. I loved the cheese shops and was sad that we would miss the cheese market that was going to be held there the following day. Pienza is famous for its Pecorino cheese – a cheese made from ewes milk that when fresh is white and creamy, but when aged is absolutely pungent and goes brown. The cheese shops just stink of it – in fact the whole town smelled of this cheese. I was in cheesy heaven and we brought a piece of the slinkiest stuff we could find (we ate it later that evening under the bell tower in Siena with a glass of white wine). I brought a set of three paintings in Pienza from a lovely girl called Isabella. My photos didn’t really capture the Tuscan countryside very well, but her paintings did and they represented exactly what we saw of our drive around that day – hence I couldn’t resist them.

On our second day with the car we headed north of Siena. Here is the famous Tuscan countryside, filled with the famous Chianti vineyards. It was a lot greener up this way compared to the previous day, with lots of forested areas around. We visited the Castle d’Brolio, the wine towns of Gaiole in Chianti, Radda in Chianti, Greve in Chianti, along with the hill town of San Gimignano. The wine countryside was very pretty – nothing special, but pretty. We thought it would be nice to come here in the winter when you could hire one of the stone houses out in the countryside and rug up by a nice warm open fire and drink bottles of Chianti! San Gimignano was especially touristy and was probably our least favourite hill town. There were people everywhere and it was hard to just walk down the street. But it was one of the most picturesque with its 14 medieval towers rising into the sky (in medieval times the families of this town warred with itself and it had over 70 towers).

So from here it’s on to Lucca, near the coast, but still in Tuscany, for my birthday.
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Vivienne on

It looks and sounds so wonderful. Glad you enjoyed your birthday. We did, too.
Pity about the parking ticket!

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