Siena, A Visible Invisible City!

Siena prides itself on being descended from the son of Romulus, one of the babies suckling at the she-wolf in the ubiquitous statues around town. This is on the wall near the train station.

Here's the main cathedral (the Duomo) in Siena, with very late afternoon sun making it glow.

View norhward from Torre La Mangia, overlooking the main plaza, Piazza del Campo.

I arrived midday on Thursday before the Ciclomundi Conference started on Friday night. That gave me some hours to try to overcome my horrendous jet-lag, and also to be an unabashed tourist in this stunning Tuscan city, in addition to squeezing in a 40-kilometer ride in the vicinity of Gaiole in Chianti, a small village in that famous wine-making region.

I was in Siena once before, so I knew how incredibly beautiful it is, but having just spent almost four days here I have gained a much greater appreciation for its texture and nuances. One of my favorite things about it, a feature it shares with most cities in this part of Italy, is the way the flow of city life is shaped by the geography on which the city was built. Years ago we published an hilarious article in Processed World called Dear Del Monte but it was also a brilliant piece in the way the author, Mark Leger, wove together the absurdity of working in the complaint department at the big food company with a deeper rumination on land-use, community, family, and eating habits. He explained how ridiculous it was that in California housing was sprawling over prime farm lands, while in a sensible and much older settled place like Tuscany in Italy, the towns were built on the hilltops to leave the farmland open for food production. Sure enough, Siena fits that description perfectly, the centuries-old part of the city sitting atop a series of hills and ridges.  Here are some photos of the streets that are far from a grid, but just naturally lead the walker from one plaza to another, along the busy commercial streets. The shops run the gamut from upscale international brands to local cutlery and hat shops, tourist junk to pizza and ice cream”¦ in other words, Siena is pretty normal amidst the stunning architecture and ancient rhythms of urban movement.

Arches beckon at every turn.

The heart of old Siena, where the streets follow the ridge tops on which the City was originally built.

More downtown Siena

Two shots of the same intersection gives you a sense of the medieval streets that still shape the city center.

This is a half mile from the commercial city center, but like most of the old city, relatively car-free.

Another appealing arch and ancient brick walls.

Something about this building made me think of an old person with lines of wisdom and mirth etched into its face...

Wherever the eye lands, it's pretty good!

Curious that they had Ciclomundi here since the old town center is closed to cycling and most motorized traffic too. It’s a proudly pedestrian city, and a great pleasure to wander around in. Off the ridge-following boulevards that help one move between commercial centers and main neighborhoods, the labyrinthine alleys and tunnels that cascade steeply down the hillsides are endlessly fun to explore. Breathtaking vistas greet you at every turn. As it happens, Italo Calvino died in Siena in 1985 and just before I arrived they had a small festival dedicated to him.

Italo Calvino celebrated in Siena, where he died in 1985.

I always hold his “Invisible Cities” as one of the great books I ever read. I can only guess how much it influenced my ongoing fascination with the details of city life and my endless pondering of imaginative and utopian futures. In Siena though, the whole notion of Invisible Cities comes to life. Climbing the great tower that stands over the Piazza del Campo you get incredible views of Siena and the Tuscan countryside as far as the eye can see to the south, east and west. Here are a bunch of photos from the Torre del Mangia, including some of the amazing architectural treasure, the Duomo (the city’s main Cathedral).

Mysterious arches atop a jumble of buildings.

One of the spots where cars gather because it's the limit of their access.

The city densely clings to the hilltop while farm fields vanish into the distance.

I love the lack of uniformity!

The Duomo is so stunning and changes so much from different angles and in different light that I couldn’t help myself from photographing it over and over again, and now you get to see my faves.

It excites the imagination to look down on a city that is so old. I recall learning the first time I was here that one of the reasons that the center of Siena remains so well preserved is that during the 14th century black plague nearly the entire population was wiped out. Wikipedia doesn’t mention anything about that, so I’m not sure how true that is. There is a good account of the interesting evolution of democracy here in Siena, a few centuries before Italy was a unified country. The Duomo was built in the 1200s, and a large wing of it was started and never finished. Part of the Ciclomundi talks and performances took place under the large wall that was going to be an extension, quite a spot to have your event!

All those rooftop shots and long views were taken from the top of this tower, Torre La Mangia.

I don't know why every city doesn't build a tower to help orient oneself...

A rainbow was the reward for getting rained on intermittently all afternoon...

But after looking down, it is just as fun to wander the streets and see the details, the facades, the common life that is shared here. The stunning Piazza del Campo is widely considered one of the best designed public spaces in the world, and it’s easy to see why. It’s sloping clamshell shape just invites you to come and pick a spot and sit. The shade moves around during the day, so you can always find a sunny spot or a shady one, as you prefer. Restaurants and cheesy tourist junk are at hand, but somehow they don’t dominate the place. Instead, the sense is one of a timeless and extremely cozy public plaza, perfectly designed for any use you may have.

A partial image of the Piazza del Campo from the top of the Torre La Mangia,
more or less looking straight down.
Another look at the Piazza del Campo from ground level.

Siena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it’s also a place where people live and work. There is a local university and a lot of students are in town, too. I loved some of the images I came upon where laundry was hanging between buildings built by artisanal skills we can only try to imagine.

Laundry and daily life in the shadow of the Torre La Mangia and Piazza del Campo
on the other side of the tower.

17 different neighborhood organizations compete every year in the centuries-old horse race called the Palio. It's staged twice a year in the Piazza del Campo and it's a huge deal for the locals to win the prize. They each have their own distinctive, colorful banners, which decorate each neighborhood, depending on its affiliation.

The winning neighborhood this year is called Selva. They had a huge costume party that filled the streets of their neighborhood, just beneath the Duomo, last night. The theme was sort of Arabian nights, so there were a wide variety of harem costumes, Ottoman empire style clothing and participatory games and performances.

The morning after, garbage already cleaned up. I had been wondering what these fabric street coverings were all about.

Didn't see this while it was active, but I guess someone had fun pretending to be crooning at a modern Dubai nightclub?

On Friday afternoon I was given a complimentary bike tour offered by a local company. Jumped on a minibus with a half dozen others and we drove for about an hour to the northeast, into the Chianti region. I happen to love chianti wines so this was a fun adventure in more ways than one. We gathered in a small piazza in Gaiole in Chianti where we selected our bikes. I got a nice Scott brand road bike, fat tires and shocks and in perfect condition. Off we went into the countryside, 11 or 12 of us finally. I was dismayed that my new friend Matteo from Ciclomundi, who helped me find the rendezvous point for the tour, didn’t come along, because it seemed that I was with a pretty monolingual group, all Italians. But as the ride proceeded, one by one different people struck up conversations with me and by the time we got back, I’d had some good chats with at least five of the other riders.

It was appropriate to start my weekend at Ciclomundi with a bike tour since the focus of Ediciclo, the Italian publishers who stage this event, is bicycle tourism. You might imagine, if you’re a regular reader, that I was a bit worried that the conference would be boring and shallow. Luckily it wasn’t, but that’s in another post. The Chianti ride took me out of my head in a good way. It was a longer ride than I usually do, about 24 miles, but it was pretty easy riding. As we began we followed our leader. Here he is, a big guy who must’ve been a good deal leaner when he first got interested in cycling some years ago.

This was the bike tour leader.... a very good guy, though we couldn't really speak to each other except in the most halting and limited way.

Choosing bikes in the piazza at City Hall in Gaiole in Chianti.

The town's coat of arms and a memorial to its war dead.

It was easy riding from the start, but too dang slow! So before long I had to blast on ahead.

Cars didn't like us much, but who cares?

On the road I moved towards the front and wondered how long I could stay at the very slow pace we seemed to be establishing. 24 miles at that speed was going to take a lot longer than the 3 hours everyone assured me it was going to be. After a while we turned off the main road and started up a long climb, not a very hard one, but steadily uphill. The route we were on is called L’Eroica, “The Heroic,” which is also a very cool annual event of the same name, with four different lengths to choose from, where the riders ride vintage bicycles and wear period clothing. Where we turned it winds up 4 km to a huge castle overlooking the Chianti countryside, Castello Brolio. I sped ahead up the hill because I just can’t go that slow when going uphill especially. Happily, no one minded, and once in a while one of my spandex-clad riding companions would overtake me briefly. I guess my Twin Peaks rides keep me in better shape than most of the other riders in this group. No matter. We regrouped at the top of the hill and eventually began down the other side. Immediately I had to pull over for this panoramic view:

Siena is in the distance but I'm not sure you can make it out in this photo.

Just a bit further down more photos just begged to be taken, including looking back at the castle.

Castello Brolio looking back up at it from the edge of its vineyards.

Close-up from same spot.

The famous Chianti countryside that gives us such good wine!


It's not like I've never seen endless vineyards before!

I got enjoyably lost in my head along the way, long miles of cruising along with nothing to do but admire the vineyards, the rolling hills, the oak groves and roadside flora. I get weirdly euphoric on long rides in the country. My butt starts to ache, but I like the air and the up and down riding so much that I just ignore it. There’s something charming and exhilarating, too, about being on a bike in such an iconic region of the world. Hey, it’s on the other side of the planet from where I usually am!

I guess that's euphoria!

This tree just sits there, demanding your attention!

One of our occasional pauses and regroupings.

Loved the oak groves along the way.

We rode around many miles on winding country roads, eventually going on to dirt and gravel roads for a good deal of our tour. One person had a flat, another rider was pretty old and she had a hard time keeping up (but she did make it all the way” kudos!). The regulars on the ride took care of everyone in their own style, and even though I couldn’t really figure out how they knew where we were (we broke up into several small groups towards the end), it all worked out. Me and one old guy who was involved in agrotourism somewhere nearby found ourselves standing at an intersection of gravel roads waiting for the main ride to come up behind us, which they never did. We ate some very ripe chianti grapes while we waited, but finally decided to head down and back as best we could. Luckily we came out to the main road at the bottom of the valley and we were just 11 km from our starting point. Off I shot up the road, and after 15 minutes I began overtaking other riders from our group”¦ how the hell they got so far in front of me I have no idea but I guess we took a wrong turn somewhere. We got back a bit later than planned, but everything was fine. A glass of chianti given me by a couple I met from Ferrara was just the perfect ending to this fantastic ride.

Back in Siena... where the eating is good, mannequins notwithstanding!

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