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Exploring Siena: Torre del Mangia and the Palio's Contrade

Great heights, small spaces, deep roots: enjoy Siena from the top of the 88 metres high tower and take a walk through the town's neighbourhoods

Siena, twelve o’clock sharp. La Torre del Mangia in Piazza del Campo is expecting us. Not for lunch, like in the old days when a man nicknamed Il Mangia would announce lunch time clinging the bells, but for a visit to the highest tower in Tuscany.

88 meters of towering red bricks undoubtedly lead up to a spectacular view of the outstretched lands that surround Siena. Even though the urge to go up is enormous, the stairwell that leads up the tower isn’t. At all. After the first five steps there is room for only one person. Since this is also the way down, you have to reverse every time you meet people on your way up, or the other way around. Imagine neither feels like budging and you’re stuck there for the rest of the afternoon. Having to skip lunch as a result. Eventually overcoming this dreadful thought and allowing some Japanese tourists to leave the passage way to us, we went up, we saw and we fell in love.

  • 1.
    Overwhelmingly beautiful views from the top of the Torre del Mangia
  • 2.
    Exploring Siena: pro tips
  • 3.
    Get to know more about Siena's "contrade"

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Overwhelmingly beautiful views from the top of the Torre del Mangia

Siena and its Duomo from the Torre del Mangia
Siena and its Duomo from the Torre del Mangia - Credit: Gonçalo Figueiredo

In Italian you say "mozzafiato" when something is overwhelmingly beautiful and literally takes your breath away. This might also be due to the 400 steps that you need to climb before being rewarded for the effort, but anyway, the sight is stunning to say the least. Piazza del Campo turns into red tiled houses, passes through lush green gardens and eventually rolls into the endless countryside. The cameras just wouldn’t shut up.

The way down was quickened by the absence of Japanese tourists and the promise of frittelle; a Sienese specialty made of fried dough and sugar. 

Exploring Siena: pro tips

Fonte Gaia, Siena
Fonte Gaia, Siena - Credit: Goncalo Figueiredo

With our sugar levels up and hart rates down, we were ready for the next challenge: discovering Siena through the eyes of an ex-inhabitant. Our team leader Ivo studied Communication Sciences in Siena for five years so he was the perfect person to tell us a good story about the place that used to be his home.

  • First tip: when walking up the steep alleys, string your buttocks together tightly. This will help you walk up faster and with less effort. Being true, this tip was extremely facilitating due to Siena’s high number of uphill streets.
  • Second tip: check out the underground waterways that provided the whole city with water before the hydraulic revolution. The flow of water would start at the main spring at Porta Camollia and, passing through this complicated network of waterways, would eventually end up in Fonte Gaia, the extravagant bathtub in Piazza del Campo. In Via della Fonte you can admire one of the water basins that used to collect the water.
  • Third tip: don’t offend a Contradaiolo.

Get to know more about Siena's "contrade"

Strolling in Siena
Strolling in Siena - Credit: Gonçalo Figueiredo

Walking through the different Contrade, the neighbourhoods Siena is strictly divided into, Ivo shares his ambiguous relationship with Contradaioli. He explains that they generally aren’t keen on letting anyone from the outside into their exclusive world. The fights that sometimes broke out between the Contradaioli and the students due to a wrongly placed comment were illustrative for this attitude. Luckily the owners of the restaurant “Le Segrete” were made out of different pasta and happily shared the ins and outs of being a Contradaiolo.

It isn’t only about the famous yearly horse race Il Palio di Siena in which the Contrade compete against each other. It’s about living for your Contrada with pride, day in day out. About passion and love for your roots and, if necessary, about defending them. You might call them crazy, but this fired attitude does surely turn Siena into a city with a soul.

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