Medieval culture is just so cool, and it is especially so in Siena, Italy. Siena’s roots in medieval times are grounded through its architecture, food and customs. You see, there are neighborhoods in Siena, or districts that are represented by flags. These flags are everywhere. They are beautifully displayed in the cathedral, they mark the neighborhoods you are about to enter, and, of course they are for sale through street vendors.
This tribal stuff culminates two times a year in a horse race called the Palio. Ten of these districts are chosen to compete against each in July and August. The build-up to the race is a little crazy, the race, even crazier. For instance, even if a rider falls off the horse,they can still win. Riders ride bare back, and they merely drop a rope that has been placed in front of the horses to signal the start of the race. Oh, and did I mention this all takes place in the town square? For a video of this craziness click here. When horse racing is not present in Il Campo, as in the case when we were there, this piazza makes me think of Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park. Not because of how it looks, but because of what people do there. It is like a playground of sorts, only that it is paved with cobblestone and surrounded by towers and turrets. Il Campo is where kids chase pigeons and eat gelato, groups of teenagers pose for selfies, and couple linger and converse. The square is lined with restaurants, and we could hear eager Coumbians in yellow jerseys cheering for their team during the World Cup. Like Sheep’s Meadow in Central Park, it’s a great gathering place to relax and just be.
Siena is also the city where we had, hands down, the best meal while in Italy. We were tired and hungry, and without consulting our guidebook, we left our hotel, walked around a few corners and found La Taberna di Cecco. We found a table outside in the alleyway, and I instantly knew this was going to be good because the menu was entirely in Italian. Our kind waiter translated for us and recommended a few dishes. We were bought this appetizer that was out of this world. I’m pretty sure it was crostini, and we scooped it out of a bowl and onto chunks of bread. It was spicy, flavorable, and so very good! The waiter told us it was his mother’s recipe. While we were pouring wine out of old stone pitchers, I looked up the street and saw flagbearers. I thought they were practicing for the horse race which was coming up in a few weeks, so I left the table and walked to the corner to watch. I soon realized that they were part of a beautiful and very reverent religious procession to the cathedral. Priests, nuns, various other clergy and finally the congregation were all making their way down the cobblestone streets. The clergy could be heard chanting over a small speaker that the procession carried. Incense was being waved through the air and Italian voices were singing as they walked along. It bought tears to my eyes. When I got back to the table, I could hear the church bells happily clanging, signifying the procession had reached its destination. I looked around at the ancient buildings, saw the glow from the medieval torches that lit the streets, looked around at the red geraniums in baskets and thought Damn. This place is cool. Really, really cool.