Tuscany areas:Florence Siena Lucca Chianti San Gimignano Arezzo Pisa Versilia Cortona Montecatini Garfagnana
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Sienna (Siena in Italian) is perhaps best enjoyed after visiting Florence, when its easy going and open atmosphere will contrast pleasantly with the traffic-ridden rush that is Florence today. Most famous for the annual Palio (ticket booking here), it is a city of quiet beauty, and the cityscape is easily appreciated by strolling up and down the largely pedestrianised streets.
For many, the area to the south of Siena represents the best of Tuscany, and many of the classic postcard images of Tuscany come from the area called the Crete Senese, a landscape of soft, rounded hills, lit by a strange light that picks out a cypress-shrouded hilltop farmhouse here, and a glowing grain-field below a mediaeval fortress there.
There are the splendid towns (with their equally splendid wines) of Montepulciano and Montalcino, the Renaissance dream-city of Pienza, the beautiful Val d'Orcia, the great monasteries and the enchanting spa-villages such as Saturnia and Bagno Vignoni, and everywhere a photograph-in-waiting.
... and some history:
Siena was founded by the Etruscans and became a Roman colony known as Saena Julia. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it flourished as one of the major cities of Europe, growing rich from banking and the wool trade. The fourteenth century saw a great amount of building; the Duomo, Palazzo Pubblico and the Campo were all begun then, but in 1348 the Black Death struck and this, together with subsequent political upheaval, saw the beginning of a drastic downturn in Siena's fortunes.
The city became little more than a rural market centre, and, as with San Gimignano, it was the growth of tourism that saw a return to wealth and prominence. Indeed, it was exactly this marked decline that accounts for the incredible state of mediaeval preservation that Siena exhibits today.
Siena is built across a range of small hills, a unique position which gives it a pleasant atmosphere of being a collection of smaller towns. Since the thirteenth century it has been divided into three terzi, arranged around the splendid Campo. These terzi are in turn subdivided into contrade, seventeen in all, which play a hugely important role in the life of the city. Loyalty to one's contrada is total, and the rivalry between the districts reaches fever-pitch in the run up to Siena's famous horserace, the Palio, held in July and August
Because Siena is built across several hills and valleys, and much of it is pedestrianised (or what passes for it here), there is a fair bit of up and down walking involved in seeing the sights. However, the lack of traffic makes it a wonderful place to wander - even when packed with tourists it feels pretty quiet and easygoing. From the Campo it is fairly easy to get your bearings. This spectacular shell-shaped space is the focal point of the city, the meeting place and the market place as well as being the venue for the Palio (ticket booking here). The 'shell' is divided into nine segments, alluding to the Council of Nine who ruled the city in its heyday, and is surrounded with buildings of great beauty.