Maria Pia is our guide for Sienna and San Gimigiano, the two Tuscan towns we are visiting by coach after docking in the port of Livorno.
First, we approach Sienna, an ancient town built on three hills, with a fan-shaped piazza in the centre. Here, in the Piazza del Campo, the famous Paolio horse race is run every year – for the last 800 years. Not even World War II interfered with the race as Sienna was a hospital town and so avoided the worst of the bombings. Maria tells us that the concept of a square is inside the DNA of the Italian people – the piazza is where you meet people; simple as that. And every year on 2 July and 16 August, 45,000 Siennese cram into the Piazza to watch this legendary horse race, where horses representing each of the 17 local districts compete for the honour of winning – three laps clockwise with or without their jockey – and displaying flags in their quarter for the coming year.
Sienna’s history and local supremacy owes much to its location on the pilgrims’ road from Canterbury in England to Rome and on to Jerusalem. Called the Franciscan Road, as it crossed France, it was trod by pilgrims who needed, at some time or another, to change currency, rest, dine and buy goods. So first the banks, then the merchants of Sienna, supplied services and the town flourished in the Middle Ages until the rival town of Florence decided to conquer these Siennese upstarts. The Florentines were only interested in maintaining military control, not developing Sienna and so the buildings of the Renaissance are not to be found in Sienna. What started as a defeat, however, is now seen as an outstanding advantage with the largely intact historical buildings now listed by UNESCO.
Today Sienna has a lively economy still based on banking, but also on the University, the arts and pharmaceutical industries. Our brief two hours are barely enough to gain glimpses of the rich history and vibrant cultural life of Sienna, but it does allow time to form a list of the sights we hope to revisit: church, town square, tower, with perhaps a few days just to enjoy coffee, maybe even buy a handbag or two…
San Gimigiano is everything we had hoped, and more, as we enter through the gate of St Giovanni. This small town perched high on a hill has uneven streets, high walls, spectacular countryside views and many hidden laneways hosting cafes, shops and pensions. It is located on the same pilgrim road that served Sienna so well. But San Gimi’s attributes extend beyond banking. It is the home of venerable wines and saffron, from the stamens of the crocus.
The value of saffron has been compared to that of gold, its scarcity contributing to its high price. Again, as with Sienna, the unique heritage of the town has been preserved because its defeat by the Florentines meant no further building took place and so locals say its defeat became its great fortune with such ancient buildings largely intact.