It had been eight years since I’d been back to the little Tuscan town of Siena. The time I spent there is filled with fond memories from my college study abroad program. This time was key to my personal growth and marked the beginning of my love for travel.
Because I hold this town in such a special place, I was thrilled to bring my love, Paul, there to experience it too. Unlike the first time I arrived in Siena, this time I was able to guide him around and show him all the “must-see” sites – as well as all the places I hung out during my time in the city almost ten years ago.
Luckily enough, like many things in Siena, the spots we went to did not change. Except for the Irish pub we went to when I was in college. That is gone and is now a different bar. We always got snake bites there so a part of me wanted to order that in there for old times. But then I realized that snake bites were now gross to me – cider with maraschino syrup at the bottom. I have no idea why this was a thing, but it was.
If you’ve never been to Siena or would like to go, I’d like to share our day with you:
After our 1 hour and 20-minute bus ride, we got off at Gramsci bus stop in the center of town. Memories came flooding back of when I arrived at evening in the town of Siena, January 2009 at age 21. I had just traveled 26 hours by myself and did not speak a lick of Italian, outside of very basic phrases. I somehow – jetlagged and overwhelmed – found the hotel we were to all stay in the night before our program began. That night I met some people who I am happy to say I am still friends with today!!!
Needless to say, my walk off the bus was much less stressful than eight years ago, but still just as magical. I do not know what it is – maybe the narrow streets or the way the light hits the buildings in Siena – but whenever I walk down the streets I feel taken back in time. People are bustling about, neighbors stop to talk to each other. Kids kick around a soccer ball and an old woman manages to walk her tiny dog in her stiletto heels without falling on the uneven medieval cobble stone streets.
Our first pit stop was Nannini’s bakery. This bakery came to be in the early 1900s and is any sweet tooth or coffee addict’s dream. They specialize in Sienese treats. The two main sweets sold here are Ricciarelli cookies and Panforte.
Ricciarelli is an almond cookie that’s a bit crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside. The top of the cookie is dusted with powdered sugar.
Panforte is an old holiday recipe. And by old, I mean from the 1200s. It’s a dessert particularly popular in Tuscany during Christmas. Thankfully the recipe has been altered over time for our modern taste buds. It’s a similar concept to fruitcake, but much denser. It has a chocolate base with little candied dried fruit and nuts mixed in.
Supposedly the original recipe was much heavier on the spices due to Siena being a main stop on the route called Via Francigena. In mediaeval times this route was an important way of transport and pilgrimage route for those wishing to visit the Holy See and the tombs of the apostles Peter and Paul. People would trade goods back and forth along this route as well.
After Nannini we headed to the Piazza del Campo! The Campo is the beating heart center of Siena. It’s also where a famous horse race called the Palio has been taking place for the past 384 years.
Locals and tourists alike love to sit in the Campo, people watch, eat pizza, sip wine, and watch their kids play with the soccer ball. It reminds me of any American park where people like to hang out and enjoy a sunny day – only instead of a park this is a piazza from the 13th century.
After we chilled out in the Campo soaking up some rays, we went to climb the Torre del Mangia. The torre or tower, stands over the Campo at 335 feet. You can climb to the top and see breathtaking views of the surrounding Tuscan countryside.
After we came down from the tower we went to see my old neighborhood. Siena is split into 13 Contradas. Each section of the small town is designated and represented by a symbol. There is Onda (Wave), Istrice (Crested Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn) and 10 more!
I lived in the Nicchio (Seashell) contrada during my study abroad. We went to visit my apartment and it was fun to see that very little has changed. We also went to my favorite hangouts while I lived there – Meet Life Café and Bella Vista Social Club.
Each contrada has a church and the Nicchio one just happened to be open when we were in the neighborhood. Inside was a young woman who was a resident of the Nicchio contrada and she was there to answer any questions we had about the church and the contrada.
We ended our day with the Duomo of Siena. The cathedral was completed between 1215-1263. The entire floor of the cathedral is made of inlaid marble mosaics, from the work of over 40 artists throughout the 1300-1500s. All the columns of the cathedral are layered in black and white marble, the colors of the crest of Siena.
As we were running to the bus stop to catch our ride back to Firenze, I had to stop at an old man’s chestnut roasting stand. As we boarded the bus I ate the freshly roasted, warm chestnuts, let out a long sigh and whispered arrivederci to my Siena. This time I don’t want my next visit to be eight years later. Maybe five this time.