Thursday, May 29, 2008

La Dolce Vita

Siena is my favorite city I’ve visited so far. It reminded me of Florence, but not as big and a lot quieter. I stayed in the main area surrounding Piazza del Campo, the center of the city. I noticed right away that it was a very traditional town – the architecture is very medieval-like, and there are flags on just about every street.

Right when I arrived, I walked to the center of the city where the Palazzo Pubblico is located – probably one of the most amazing views I have seen in Italy: the half-moon shaped town square is surrounded by restaurants and cafes and the town hall. I didn’t make it to the bell-tower, but I went through the rest of the palace, which originally served as a palace for the government. The inside is completely adorned with beautiful colored frescoes, including Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s famous Allegory and Effects of Good and Bad Government. It is so cool to see something I have studied over and over again in school, and it was a lot bigger than I thought it would be!

Later, I wandered through the winding streets and found my way to the Duomo, which was absolutely breathtaking – it was monumental, and I later learned that it was never completed because the plague hit Italy. The interior is covered with zebra-striped black and white marble walls and columns. Also, Nicola Pisano’s famous pulpit is located there, along with the Piccolomini Library.

I was woken up on Saturday morning completely terrified to a very loud noise out my window – apparently, the people of Siena were celebrating a major festival, which started at 9am with trumpets and drummers following a parade of flag-tossers dressed up in medieval attire. I walked around the city for the rest of the day, and I visited the church where Saint Catherine of Siena is preserved; literally – the saint’s head and finger are kept inside the chapel for visitors to see.

The hotel manager advised me to go to Piazza del Campo around 7pm to watch the announcing of the Palio runners racers. I had no idea what this was, but I gave it a shot. Later I did some research about the Palio, which is a horse race held twice a year since the medieval times. In Siena, there are seventeen Contrade (city wards), and runners and horses are dressed with the colors and arms of each Contrade for the actual race. Ten Contrade participate in each Palio, and are chosen according to a random drawing that dates back to the 1700s, and I happened to be in Siena for the selection of this year's Contrade!

Before I even got to Piazza del Campo, I could here thousands of people in the main circle – I feel like everyone who lived in Siena was there at that time. At just about 7, the sound of trumpets and drums grew louder and louder, as the troubadours and flag-tossers marched around the corner of Palazzo Pubblico and halted in a straight line in front the palace. At the grand finale, all the boys tossed their flags in the air (I was afraid I’d get hit!) I was amazed at how talented they were. Italians are so involved with their past and embrace the traditions of their ancestors, and I loved being able to witness an event like this. I mean seriously, when would I see Wake Forest frat boys marching around in green and red tights and medieval costumes representing their respective Contrade, tossing flags and playing trumpets, other than maybe a pledging activity?

After the flag-throwing, it was time to announce the runners. Suddenly, the windows of the palace opened and the trumpets sounded, and after a long wait of anticipation, the first flag was hung outside the window. Behind me to the left, the crowd let out an uproar of cheers and victory chants. The same process was repeated nine more times. At the end, groups from the winning Contrades were throwing their fists in the air and proudly singing victory songs. The process took all of fifteen minutes, but it was pretty exciting to be in the center of it. I love the fact that the city is so involved with its past and continues to celebrate its traditions.

Another reason why I liked Siena so much is that it was exactly what I think of as an Italian city: everything from the medieval architecture and narrow streets to the people and food. The only things that I had a problem with were the mimes – these absolutely terrify me! I avoided walking down Las Ramblas in Barcelona at all costs because of the mimes that stand on the corners completely still and whispering gibberish into your ear as you pass them. I seriously do not understand the point of painting yourself all gold and standing still on the street, waiting for passer-bys to drop a coin into your basket. They seriously creep me out. But other than that, Siena was the most interesting and unique city that I visited – I loved it!

So this concludes the final entry of my Italian adventures, and I will be SO sad to leave when I do. But I am so fortunate for this opportunity, which really opened my eyes to the beauty of European culture and identity. At first, I thought that traveling by myself would be difficult and scary, and there were definitely some challenges along the way, but it taught me a lot and I loved every minute of it. I have traveled with family and friends before, so this adventure helped me learn and appreciate things that I could only get from independent travel. I hope that someday I will be able to return to these cities and explore all the places that I didn’t get to visit!

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