The Giraffe Society: Summer in Siena.
‘Summer is over.’ One of the most demoralising phrases to be uttered at this time of year. Don’t get me wrong. I love autumn. Autumn can also be a wonderful time, the leaves turn golden brown as they slowly flutter to the damp ground, we wrap up warm in our trench coats and bring out our knit scarves. Mulled cider and mulled wine finally make a reappearance and roasted chestnuts become an acceptable snack. But summer comes with vitamin D and vacations. Therefore, I think it’s safe to say that Summer is indeed my favourite season. I love going outside with a T-shirt and shorts eating ice cream and shaved ice to cool down. I love the feeling of not having as many responsibilities and knowing that your days last longer. However, I didn’t go very far. I wanted to make sure I gave myself adequate time to study.
This summer, I divided my time between Venice, Tuscany and Emilia Romagna which is not exactly the furthest place I could possibly travel to considering I was already in Italy. I was not sure what I should expect from Tuscany. Most Italians wholeheartedly agree that Tuscany ranks as the best region in Italy for a multitude of reasons, the Tuscan food, Chianti wine, the Tuscany accent (credited as being the standard literary Italian), and the beauty of the hills in addition to it being a place where everything functions adequately. I had been looking forward to visiting this region for quite sometime because unlike Venice, Florence had been on my lifelong bucket list of places that I would love to visit across the globe.
Knowing I was so close, I also wanted to visit Pisa so I could see the leaning tower of Pisa first hand. Many people had already warned me that aside from the tower there was not much else to see in Pisa so my expectations were managed quite well. My mini adventure this summer in Tuscany was great because I got to experience a different side to Italy, one that I don’t always get to see as a student in the Veneto region. Each region really does have its own unique characteristics so when you leave the place you are familiar with you can see something new or rather unexpected.
To kick off my summer fun we decided to stay in Siena as our base. Siena is around one hour from Florence and easily accessible with the local trains. Staying in Siena meant that we could see one extra city and also save money on accomodation as prices were far cheaper than in Florence in the peak of the summer.
Siena was the most memorable part of my trip because I had no idea what to expect. Siena is actually a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Well, the city centre is. It still had the city walls and when you pass through you feel as though you are transported into another world. It’s a very old fashioned centre with beautiful architecture and slanted buildings mounted on steep hills.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Siena is most famous for the Palio, a horse race which takes place twice a year in July and and August. It’s a tradition which dates back the late 1500s I believe to replace bull fighting in the region. There are 17 Contrade sort of like mascots or emblems which represent the neighbourhoods in Siena. They are: Valley of the Ram, Tower, Tortoise, Forest, Panther, Wave, Goose, Seashell, Wolf, Unicorn, Porcupine, Giraffe, Dragon, Owl, Snail, Eagle and Caterpillar. A representative from each Contrade competes in a bareback horse race through Piazza del Campo. The rules have been revised over the centuries but the spirit remains the same. The winning Contrade enjoys the honour and prestige of being from the winning house.
I happened to be in town just after the conclusion of the first race of the year and the winning horse belonged to the Giraffe society. I just so happened to be staying in the Giraffe neighbourhood so each night wild shouts, street parades and parties which lasted into the wee hours of the morning reached our bedroom window each night. I was eager to find out more about these societies and the neighbourhoods so I took off around Siena checking out all the different neighbourhoods that I could find eventually stopping inside the ‘clubhouse’ of one of the societies which was located in what looked like an old church. Ducking into one of the side rooms you could explore the inside freely. They proudly displayed their armour and official uniforms throughout the years. They had manuscripts and tapestries dating their historic wins. Outside the window you could hear people practicing the drums in the garden outside. I absolutely traditions so I enjoyed learning about this one. Though, it is extremely cruel to horses and very gruesome. Its a very brutal race and people could die by being flung of their horses or trampled. In this modern climate I have no idea how long a race like this can continue on but I feel like the locals won’t let this tradition go without a fight.
In other news I had a short list of Tuscany delicacies I wanted to try whilst I was there including of course the local wine. I think if I do go back to Tuscany it will be specifically to a winery. I also tried Ribollita which is a kind of vegetable stew served with bread, very dense and packed with flavour. I also tried Lardo di Colonnata which is a delicious bruschetta topped with cured pork lard (tastes better than it sounds). Another speciality of Tuscany that I tried for the first time there was wild Boar. I have eaten wild boar a few times before but never in Italy. In tuscany they cook wild boar into pastas, sandwiches and even cure the meat into a type of salami. Its a strong tasting meat but prepared in such a way that it doesn’t over power the dish. Somehow I don’t think I can compare the food I ate to other Italian dishes I have tried because the food in Tuscany is pretty distinct.
Overall Siena left a deep impression on me as one of my favourite cities that I have visited here in Italy. It was beautiful, classy, full of history and tradition and there was great food. The locals were also pretty laid back so it was a great city to vacation in. I hope I can visit this wonderful city again in the future.