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Europe Italy

Siena: City of the Palio––Travelogue (October 12, 2016)

21 January, 2017

Piazza del Campo, Siena. Photo credit: © thetravellingsociologist

Siena is a beautiful and historic town in Tuscany just south of Florence. It is a must-see for any traveller to Tuscany––once you’ve fulfilled a prerequisite trip to Florence, I would urge. I visited Siena on a sunny autumn day, anticipating immediate and complete immersion in its historic charm. However, for me, the trip was a bittersweet memory. Here are 5 reasons why, and how you can separate out the bitter from the sweet, if you ever decide to go there yourself.

1. The train station nightmare. I took a train into Siena. The train cost only slightly more than a bus and took about a half hour less time to arrive (approximately an hour and a half, total). But the trouble started when I got off the train.

I initially thought I had a plan. I went straight to the gift shop to purchase a map, but then decided against the pricey, laminated selection and instead asked for the whereabouts of the tourist office––where I figured I could get both a free map and other useful touristic information. Once at the tourist office, I asked the clerk for a map and directions to downtown. Now, this clerk was one of those impatient and surly customer service agents who make you feel like they are doing you such a HUGE favor to do their jobs. Ignoring her attitude, I ventured a couple of questions to clarify her instructions, then set out, confident that I had understood all that I needed to. But after crossing the courtyard into the mall complex and out into the parking lot, then looping around on the only path in sight that led me right back to the main train station building; and repeat; and repeat; and repeat; like a hamster in a cage; for an obstinate half-hour with only very slight variations in the itinerary but no variation at all in the outcome…I had had enough. I went back to the tourist office, deflated, and quite desperate. And after 2 people cut in line in front of me –– at least I assumed it was a line; but you never know in Tuscany––I was finally in front of the same clerk who had given me the initial directive. I explained my dilemma. “We will see if I can help you,” she snarled, speaking very slowly and loudly, as though to make her words idiot-proof, and yanked the map she had given me earlier from my hands. “You go here, here, here, and here.” She stabbed at the map. “Next!” Speechless. Speechless. Speechless. I mean, that was a TOURIST office. Supposed to help TOURISTS. I was a tourist. And I was screwed.

So, my dear friends, I continued my brave wondering…around and around, trying to vary the formula and even to incorporate some illogical steps. And it was this latter strategy that finally saved me when I walked back on the train platform, where passengers were boarding the trains, continued right to the very end of the tracks, and reached a dead end. Except –– wait; it wasn’t a dead-end. There was a staircase behind this graffiti-streaked wall. Venturing up it and hoping not to meet any stoned needle pushers or weapon-wielding maniacs along the way, I emerged victorious and jubilant to find…a busy expressway. Or more precisely, expressways. With what seemed a million street signs and contorting roads that I knew I would never be able to guess my way around. That’s when I thought I might just take the train right back to whence I came from.

But being obstinately persistent, I decided to try again. I used an old-fashioned tactic (albeit one that had not been very successful in the hamster cage)––talking to other humans. Fortunately, I speak a little Italian. You do need to speak Italian to communicate in Italy. Do not assume English will suffice. (And what better way to truly immerse yourself in a culture than to try to speak the language, eh?) So, I turned on my radar for human life forms, spotted and cornered a middle-aged gentleman waiting at a bus stop, and tested my self-taught Italian vocabulary. The man was so kind––although he did not know how to help me, because he was not, himself, from Siena but just passing through, he took the time to GoogleMap my destination on his phone and provided me with thorough and––I can testify to it––successful directions to downtown Siena #humansrock #thereisstillgoodinthisworld

Advice: My advice to you, in all this, is: DO NOT TAKE THE TRAIN INTO SIENA. Take the bus. They go straight downtown, as the main bus station is located there, in Piazza Gramsci. Take the bus, take the bus, take the bus. Unless you’re ready to splurge on a taxi or decide to rent a car, of course.

2. The time of day. I personally think the best time of day to see Siena in all of its beauty is in the late morning or early afternoon. Why? Because that’s generally the sunniest part of the day (if it’s going to be a sunny day at all), and also because you’ll likely have a lot of energy around that time––and visiting Siena requires energy; it’s a walking kind of city. You’ll want to top your reserves up if you want to see all of it. It’s no good visiting Siena when it’s cloudy or dark out, or raining. How are you going to stretch out and lounge at Piazza del Campo if it’s raining? (You cannot visit Siena without a trip to Piazza del Campo, by the way; it’s practically the most famous spot in the city––made so by the biannual horse race (Il Palio) that takes place there and is broadcast to television viewers all over Italy.)

Advice: If you have a choice about it, go to Siena on a day that’s forecasted to have good weather.

3. The time allotted for the entire journey. Siena is a very small city and doesn’t require a full day to visit.

Advice: You should be good with 4 hours total, including meal time…which brings me to my next point.

4. Meal planning. I didn’t go looking for good spots to eat or buy any food in Siena, so I can’t tell you much about the foodie scene in Siena. (I love good food as much as the next person, but I am definitely not a foodie traveller, preferring history, art, architecture, languages, nature, and connecting with locals.) I went to Siena right after having a late breakfast, and had a snack bar and a bottle of water in my bag; for the amount of time I spent in the city, that was enough.

Advice: I did notice a lot of street food around while wandering the winding, cobblestoned streets of Siena––pizza, panini, that sort of thing. And there were numerous restaurants with outdoor seating crowding the periphery of Piazza del Campo. So if you’re looking for street food or restaurant cuisine, that’s where you can find them. But if you are a real foodie, you may want to research this scene a little better for yourself. Perhaps Trip Advisor can help with that.

5. Planning for gift delivery. Ah…gifts. I love to buy gifts for my friends and family when I travel. And I am an avid collector of souvenir fridge magnets for myself. But what I never seem to plan well for, is how in the world I will carry all of my treasures back to my hostel or hotel. And so, I repeatedly find myself weighted down by numerous plastic bags, unable to properly take pictures or cover the mileage I would like because my hands are full and my arms are killing me.

Advice: Good people of the travel world: A backpack will do you good.  

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