Tuscany is a place rich in history, landscapes that look like paintings, medieval villages and wonderful cities of art.
It’s also the ideal place to enjoy excellent meat and cheese accompanied by good local wine.
My first time in Tuscany was at the time of uni when every spare moment was a good excuse to get around to discover the Italian beauties.
After Florence and Pisa, Siena is another famous Tuscan city much loved by tourists, a town that is worth a visit for its history and beauty.
I suggest you get to Siena by car to enjoy the beautiful green and yellow hills around Siena; they’re so elegant and lush that remember old paintings of Florentine art.
I drove to Siena from Pisa (130 km) over the Easter weekend and I was amazed of the both Italian and foreign tourist flow in the city.
If you want to enjoy the city with calm and you have the chance, you should visit it in non-holiday periods.
During the holidays, to avoid being disappointed just like it happened to me with the Torre del Mangia in Piazza del Campo, you should visit the attractions of the city in the early morning or you’ll risk of not finding tickets.
Siena is built on three hills on which stands the city, which is accessed through the main doors in the walls that surround the old town.
To get in the historic heart you must leave your car in parking lots in the lower part of the city (€1.60 per hour). For those who stay several days in the city should buy a day pass at a cost of €25.60.
Then through escalators and a pleasant walk you arrive in the heart of Siena.
Its medieval walls, large squares, towers and perched palaces make it a timeless beauty.
What is immediately evident of this city is its predominant color: brown in a gradation used much in painting, which is called “terra di Siena bruciata“.
The heart of town is Piazza del Campo, also famous because twice a year, exactly on July 2 and August 16, the is the Palio delle Contrade. This is a unique horse race in the world that sees confront the historical seventeen contrade (districts) that make up the Tuscan city.
This square has a very particular shape that surprised me; a shell shape that follows the lay of the land becoming concave in the middle. It almost seems a container which collects and wraps the people inside.
It’s nice to join the people who fill the square, sitting on the ground, lying and stealing a bit of sun or by drinking the fresh water that flows from the nearby fountain.
From this angle you can familiarise yourself with the surrounding monuments overlooking the square.
In the magnificent Town Hall, with red bricks and white marble, is where the Civic Museum in which are kept many masterpieces of Sienese artists.
Next to the palace stands the Torre del Mangia, among the highest in Italy and from the top you can enjoy a magnificent view of the town and the surrounding countryside (unfortunately I’ve missed it this time).
The cumulative ticket to visit both monuments is €13.
After having enjoyed the square from all angles and stopping by to imagine the appearance that takes the square during the spectacle of the Palio, you should get lost in the narrow alleys of the town.
Through these we reach the marvellous Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta with the peculiar white marble façade.
I’m not a fan of churches but this is really wonderful, with its imposing façade and the sumptuous gothic interior. Its magnificient floors leave tourists out of breath.
The church is also an important art museum and includes the Piccolomini Library frescoed by Pinturicchio.
I suggest you buy an OPA SI PASS for only €12 valid for three days to get access to the most beautiful sights of this town – an intellectual insight of Italian art.
If you were unable to climb the Torre del Mangia, or if you want to view Siena from the top, with the OPA SI PASS you can go up on the roof terrace of Facciatone.
Here you will face the most fascinating view of the town and the Tuscan countryside, and you will have the opportunity to take pictures from the best view point. You should go at sunset for unforgettable photos.
The imperative is to arm yourself with a camera and even a little patience for the queue.
If you want to continue the visit by paying tribute to the patron saint of the city there is the last stop Catherine’s Church of San Domenico, with the imposing architecture, where there is preserved the Holy Head of Saint Catherine of Siena (free admission).
The kilometers that separate Pisa from Siena (130 km) are not only a way to go somewhere but a path to discovery medieval villages that time forgot as San Miniato, San Gimignano and the Abbey of San Galgano (with the true and little known sword in the stone!).
Starting from Pisa, at about 45 minutes drive south, the first village worth a visit is the ancient San Miniato.
The village is accessible by an elevator that connects the parking lot which is located at the foot of the hill and the village itself.
San Miniato is a small village between the heights overlooking the Arno and on its top, at almost 200 m high (accessible on foot via a stairway), rises the Tower of Frederick II.
Up here the silence reigns and the view is enchanting.
Walking around the village I had the feeling of going back in time, between knights, ladies and squires who lived in this place.
Walking through the streets and staircases you will come to all the monuments of the town such as Palazzo dei Vicari with next to it the Cathedral which preserves valuable works of art from different periods, the Seminary with its paintings on the facade and the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art (entrance fee €2.50).
It takes an hour to visit the whole town but it’s well worth it.
A must is to stop at the gourmet shops where you can buy the white truffle: San Miniato, in fact, is one of the most productive rich areas in Europe for truffles.
I recommend you try it, it’s delicious!
The second stop on the route, at 42 km from Siena, is San Gimignano, the city considered the UNESCO World Cultural and Natural Heritage.
From wherever side you arrive, San Gimignano is shown with its numerous towers on the hill at 334 meters high.
Today there are thirteen towers but they say that in the fourteenth century there were seventy two, at least one for each wealthy family who, through the construction of a tower, could well show their economic power.
The legends are intertwined to the ancient history of this village, inhabited since prehistoric times.
It’s impressive to walk through the streets of this ancient village remained intact in time.
The ancient stones, the wooden windows, wrought iron lampposts, tall and imposing towers and the square with the ancient well in the middle have enchanted and stimulated my imagination so so much!
I wonder how people lived here in the Middle Ages, it was somehow even more fascinating this place at the sound of the bells and the passing of the horses!
San Galgano Abbey
But my favorite stop is located in a secluded valley in the hills about a half hour from Siena.
In a village called Chiusdino stands the ancient and magnificent Cistercian abbey (now deconsecrated) of San Galgano.
The roofless Abbey, located a short walk from the Hermitage Montesiepi which houses the sword in the stone, has fascinated and fascinates anyone that walks into it.
Imposing and masterfully constructed, it evokes a scene from a movie.
I have always been fascinated by the mysterious places as a child, when I preferred knights and mysteries to fairy princesses.
Therefore the Sword in the Stone has always been one of my favorite Disney movies: I loved Merlin and Anacleto and I always wondered if they really existed and where was the famous King Arthur’s sword in the rock!
Only after I grew up I found out about it: in addition to that of Disneyland ?, the real sword in the stone is located in the Eremo di Montesiepi, in Chiusdino.
It’s reachable by car or on foot via a pathway up the hill that ends in the Hermitage, where the sword houses.
Legend has it that one night appeared to the young knight Galgano the Archangel Michael to guide him through a narrow and steep pathway up to the hill of Montesiepi. Galgano interpreted this vision as a sign of divine will and some time later, in fact, would have made this place his home as a hermit.
On the hill of Montesiepi Galgano abandoned the role of knight and stuck his sword into a rock, so that it became a cross. That sword is still here, more than eight hundred years after, as a symbol of his incorruptible conversion.
And King Arthur?
It is said that the myth of the ‘Sword in the Stone’ was born actually right in Tuscany, exported from there to France and then grafted into the Arthurian cycle. Some factors make this hypothesis plausible: both the Cistercian Abbey and the chapel dedicated to Galgano are contemporary to the discovery of Arthur’s tomb in Glastonbury.
Unfortunately in the Hermitage you cannot meet King Arthur nor Merlin the Magician, but seeing the sword stuck in the rocks from centuries ago undoubtedly revived the myth and the atmosphere.
Do not think about trying to pull it out like someone did years ago as a sort of modern King Arthur, breaking it up on the hilt.
Since then a shrine protects the sword from human stupidity.
As it is easy to think, the charming abbey fascinates everyone and has been used as a setting for numerous films of all kinds: “Nostalghia” of Andrei Tarkovsky (1983), “The English Patient” by Anthony Minghella (1996), Paolo Barca, Elementary Teacher, Praticamente Nudista with Renato Pozzetto (1975), the final scene of the film “Love on a pillow” by Roger Vadim (1962), a scene from “Sole a catinelle” Checco Zalone.