007 versus 'The Palio' - Piazza Il Campo

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by actonsteve on December 17, 2009

The world is a little bit in love with Siena.

It’s a favourite of Sunday newspaper travel writers who wax lyrical about its ‘timeless quality’ or ‘unique ambience’ and it is true that it is a delicious little town in the Tuscan hills. It has been discovered, however, and on a summer Saturday can get very busy. It got an extra boost last year when Daniel Craig burst through ‘The Palio’ on the trail of a traitor in the excellent ‘Quantum of Solace’. Its red roofs were the location for a foot chase with the protagonists slipping and sliding over terracotta tiles high above the streets. There are some places in the world like India or Morocco that where everywhere you point a camera there is something interesting – Siena fits that description to a tee.

You have to share those good looks with thousands of other people and while you don’t get the crush you get with Florence’s Ponte Vecchio it does get very busy in summer. The residents must cope with endless streams of tourists so I was pleasantly surprised to find the locals friendly and amenable. When I got off the bus from the Stazione I was disorientated and asked a passerby.

"Dov’e Il Campo per favour.."
"Straight down and follow the road"

I should have known everyone would have a smattering of Inglese in Siena.

The Inglese have been coming to Siena for a very long time. The first ‘Grand Tourists’ arrived in the 17th Century. But Siena is a lot older than that. It was a Roman outpost called Saena Julia. The town was smack in the middle of the pilgrim route from France to Rome bringing with it trade. So this tiny outpost in the middle of nowhere found itself getting very rich in the Middle ages. Like any teenager enjoying its new found wealth it became belligerent in a neighbourhood that contained Pisa, Lucca, Milan and mighty Florence. It held its own – barely – at one point beating the Florentines so severely that the Sienese supposedly danced on 10,000 corpses with nails in their boots. The wealth created the beautiful city you see today but it all came to an end when the Black Death hit in 1348 and its population never recovered. Absorbed into Tuscany in 1559 it now relies on the tourist trade. But the old rivalries are still there, not just against the snooty Florentines or bookworm Pisans but against itself when the cities wards race around the Piazza del Campo in the world famous ‘Palio’

You could almost smell the history when walking the narrow maroon streets of Siena. I was at the top of the hill as it sloped down Via De’Montanni. Either side were medieval houses with slated roofs and shuttered doors. Each house is made from reddish terracotta and led onto a cobbled street. There were plenty of shoppers this sunny warm Saturday afternoon. Italy has not yet been taken over by chain stores and there were plenty of individual grocers, gelatarias, farmacias, pizzerias and pensiones.

As you delve further the city becomes even more of a russet red maze. Alleys lead off the main drag leading to dead ends of little cul-de-sacs where narrow houses overlook each other. A slight uphill walk takes you to Via Banchi el Sopra. As I was walking by a small gap appeared to my left and a set of stone steps led down to an enormous piazza. This must be Piazza Il Campo.

I totted down the steps and the vast piazza spread out before me. The immediate image was its colour – faded salmon. The piazza is in a small shallow bowl in a great fan shape. It descends at a slight angle to a set of magnificent buildings on the other side. It was about 100ft square and a little smaller than I expected but the drama of the piazza won me. The whole thing is surrounded by balconied medieval buildings each one with a restaurant underneath. What I wouldn’t do to live in a flat above Il Campo – though it could get noisy in the summer evenings.

That goes for when ‘The Palio’ occurs for two days each July. It’s a horse race where the horses become heroes if they win. The jockeys are disposable and the sprint has an element of danger to it. Each city section (contrade) has a participant and the start of the race is quite memorable with emblems and flags which are seen at the beginning of Quantum of Solace. Daniel Craig shoots a spectator as he tears through the cheering crowds. The spectators, 30,000 of them, are kept in the central section under the hot sun while the horses race around the outside. The whole thing is over in 90 seconds.

One thing I did not expect to find in Il Campo was the Font Gaia (earth fountain). This arctic white marble pool is half way up the Campo and is connected to the springs and channels under the city. It spews clear fresh cold water into a pool surrounded by statues. Its’ a favourite with birdlife and the water is so fresh a faucet allows you to refill your waterbottle. I came back to the Campo at the end of the day and it was used to water a thirsty spaniel. An old lady brought along a finch in a matchbox and did the same.

I love Il Campo. It’s a wonderful place to wile away an afternoon in the hot sun.

Il Campo
Piazza del Campo
Siena, Italy


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