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With its narrow streets and steep alleys, a stunning Gothic cathedral, a bounty of early Renaissance art, and the glorious Palazzo Pubblico overlooking its magnificent Piazza del Campo (or just, "Campo"), Siena is often described as Italy's best-preserved medieval city. Victory over Florence in 1260 at Montaperti marked the beginning of Siena's golden age. During the following decades Siena erected its greatest buildings (including the Duomo); established a model city government presided over by the Council of Nine; and became a great art, textile, and trade center. Siena succumbed to Florentine rule in the mid-16th century, when a yearlong siege virtually eliminated the native population. Ironically, it was precisely this decline that, along with the steadfast pride of the Sienese, prevented further development, to which we owe the city's marvelous medieval condition today.
Although much looks as it did in the early 14th century, Siena is no museum. Walk through the streets and you can see that the medieval contrade, 17 neighborhoods into which the city has been historically divided, are a vibrant part of modern life. You may see symbols of the contrade—Tartuca (turtle), Oca (goose), Istrice (porcupine), Torre (tower)—emblazoned on banners and engraved on building walls. The Sienese still strongly identify themselves by the contrada where they were born and raised; loyalty and rivalry run deep. At no time is this more visible than during the centuries-old Palio, a twice-yearly horse race held in the Piazza del Campo. But you need not visit during the wild festival to come to know the rich culture and enchanting pleasures of Siena; those are evident at every step.
Siena at a Glance
Elsewhere in Tuscany
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- Castellina in Chianti
- Colle di Val d'Elsa
- Greve in Chianti
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