My number one travel rule is this: never spend the first night of a trip in a major city. Odds are you are tired from travel and the last thing you need is to be overwhelmed by people and skyscrapers and traffic.
Which is how I came to spend the first night of my first trip to Italy in Siena. After twenty hours in transit, including two flights and a bus ride, I arrived in Siena exhausted but that exhaustion disappeared as soon as I looked around.
With its fabulously car-free city centre and tangle of well-strolled streets, Siena felt instantly welcoming and incredibly safe. I was alone and tired but I felt completely at ease as I made my way through the city.
I arrived just as dusk was falling and, after a quick stop at my hotel (where I got sidetracked by the stunning view from my room – see photo above), was able to join the crowds for the evening passegiata. Walking those beautiful streets alongside families licking gelatos, old women strolling arm-in-arm with their husbands, and crowds of twenty-something men chatting on their cells phones to their mamas, felt surreal. I was in Italy! There could be no mistaking it for anywhere else.
I moved with the crowd to the city’s heart: Piazza del Campo. In the gently-sloped, clamshell-shaped square children kicked soccer balls, students lay on the ground chatting, and I stood marvelling at it all.
And then from one of the side streets came thumping electronica and dozens of people singing and wearing bizarre costumes. Because in addition to being absolutely beautiful, Siena is also a bit bonkers. Which makes it that much more loveable, obviously.
In the morning, the city was just as inviting as it had been the night before. The weather was perfect so I skipped the churches and galleries for the city’s backstreets and sunny corners.
I lounged in the near-empty Campo soaking up the sunshine. I climbed the Torre del Mangia alongside only two other visitors to take in spectacular views of the city. I strolled the park-like walls of the Fortezza, sitting under a tree to write my postcards to friends and family back home as joggers lumbered past. I turned corners to find children practicing their flag throwing in tiny squares – as you do in this city that still adores its medieval traditions.
And then, all too soon, I left. But I left relaxed and invigorated and thoroughly in love with Italy, thanks to Siena.
Siena is truly the perfect introduction to Italy. Slow-paced and scenic, it helped me relax into vacation speed and, more importantly, let me know that all my dreams of Italian life, which I’d thought too cliched to be real, could come true.
- To make Siena your first stop in Italy, fly into Florence’s perfectly petite airport and then make your way to the city’s bus station. The fast buses to Siena run regularly and only take about an hour and fifteen minutes. They drop you right in town (at the top of the hill), unlike the trains which leave you at the station a bit outside of town (and down the hill).
- Like any Tuscan town, crowds can be an issue. I visited in late September and was in town Saturday night and Sunday morning. While there were tourists, they were far from overwhelming (as you can see from the photos above). The Duomo, Siena’s main tourist site, is closed Sunday mornings while church services are held so perhaps this is why the city was relatively calm. I stopped in Siena later the same week (to see the Duomo) and even in the pouring rain there were tourists everywhere.
Have you visited Siena or do you have a great memory from the first time you visited a place? Let me know in the comment section below!
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