Dec 10, 2014

Siena, Day 2

Last evening when I arrived in Siena, I knew it was too late to go and knock on the door of the parish accommodation ‎in the hope that there would be someone there. They weren't answering the phone earlier in the day, which I've learned is not a good sign. Instead, I phoned the first hotel listed in my Via Francigena guidebook, the wonderfully named Alma Domus. This nifty place is centrally located within the mediaeval walled city, so all the major sites are a short distance away as the crow flies.

This morning I was up and packed right on schedule, and had a good hearty breakfast at the hotel. Then, since I'd planned to have a shorter day (only 27 kms), I decided to spend the morning exploring the old city of Siena. The hotel has a luggage lockup service which allows people to do this very thing, and by 10:00 I was walking to the nearby Basilica of San Domenico.‎ 

There were several signs prohibiting both photography and the use of mobile phones, and I respected their wishes. ‎(I took the above photo later from another of Siena's hills, having walked down and then up some very long and steep staircases.) It's a brick basilica (i.e. no columns or aisles, with a very high trussed ceiling) in the shape of a T, although I think both the transept and the nave are the same length. There are seven apses(!) in the transept, and they are not small ones. Because the ceiling was timber beams, there were no frescoes, but the adjoining sacristy had fragments of iconography on the ceiling that dated back to the 13th century and the completion of the basilica. I was struck at how familiar the images appeared to Orthodox eyes. Even after the Great Schism, the West maintained many of the artistic traditions of the united Church of the first millennium for centuries.

Also maintained in the basilica are two relics of Catherine of Siena, a saint and Doctor of the Catholic Church. She was designated as one of two patron saints of Italy (the other being Francis of Assisi), and one of six patron saints of Europe by the pope. (I forget which one, but this dignity was awarded in the 20th century.)

Although this is a major church and there are signs throughout town pointing out the way to San Domenico, I was probably the only non-Catholic (tourist?) visitor there. It felt like a place of prayer, and I did light a candle before leaving.

My next stop was the Duomo. ( The cathedral is visible from my hotel window, but in order to reach it, I had some fairly steep slopes to deal with. No backpack though, so I paced myself and enjoyed the views and the morning sunshine. 

When I arrived, the front doors were closed, but a side door (the Portal of Pardon) was open, so in I went. And then I was told that I couldn't come in by that door, the museu-- I mean, church, wasn't open until 10:30, and I would need to have a ticket to get in. Admission to the cathedral is free, but I guess during the high tourist season they need some way of controlling the number of people inside at any one time.

Out I went, and obediently waited in line for the ticket office to open. I decided to pay €8 for a "Si Pass" which gave admission to the Duomo (free), plus a library in the cathedral with 15th and 16th century works on display, ‎the crypt, the baptistry, and the cathedral museum In an adjoining building. Bought separately, admission to those four would have been €20.

I was the third person in line, but the second person was a tour guide who got 53 tickets for her group, and there were other groups massing behind me. Perhaps it was my initial reception, or my personal preference for less "baroque" furnishings, or simply the throngs of camera-toting tourists who were rushed through the cathedral, but I much preferred the tranquillity of San Domenico to the busy (visually and foot traffic) cathedral. Still, I took my time and discovered a few things which really appealed to me. (It helped that the tour groups were in and out within 15 minutes.) This was one of the days I regretted shipping my camera home to lighten my load, but I did get some satisfactory images with my cellphone. (‎

My next stop was the crypt. As was the norm, this was simply the "basement" of the church - the level beneath the main sanctuary. However, since Siena is a city built on multiple hills, this means that a major edifice like the Duomo needs to extend itself quite far down the slope in order to maintain a level footprint at "ground level" on the top of the hill. The entrance to the crypt ‎is about ten metres below the crest of the hill. One may access the doorway to the crypt from a broad steep staircase, either climbing down 10 m from the top, or up 20 m from the bottom.

Either way, it's worth a visit! The information provided was rather sparse (I wasn't willing to pay €2 for a 10 minute a/v presentation‎), but that's what the internet is for. The space beneath the main church would normally be used as a secondary altar, perhaps dedicated to a local saint, and used infrequently. In Siena, this level of the building was filled in with rubble when the magnificently ornate baptistry was carved out of an even lower level of the hill beneath the main cathedral. Said chapel dedicated to St John the Baptist is sumptuously decorated with works of art by such notables as Michaelangelo and Donatello, but it's all just a little too rich for my taste.

The excavation of the previously filled-in and forgotten crypt began in 1999 and continued for four years. Much of the original space had been irrevocably altered to serve the needs of the "new" baptistry below, and that included blocking up the tall windows overlooking the town (yeah, a crypt with a view - how about that?!?) and throwing up new reinforcement arches that obscured much of the late 13th century iconography showing the life of Christ from the Annunciation through to the Harrowing of Hell. ‎ The preservation and restoration work they've done is impressive, but not nearly as impressive as the fact that even in the last quarter of the 1200s, the western church was still in touch with its roots. The later humanist focus on the individual had not yet diminished the ascetic  discipline of the visual arts in Italy at the time these masterpieces were completed. Sadly, photography was strictly forbidden.

My next stop was the cathedral museum. This featured original statues from the cathedral, now somewhat the worse for wear, and replaced a few centuries ago with what is currently on view to the world. There were also vestments, and hymnals from the 13th to the 15th centuries. The latter were particularly cool! For me, the winning feature of the museum was the access to the "Facciatone," built in the 14th century as the new main facade for the intended extension of the cathedral. Various factors, including the Black Death, put a halt to the construction, but not before this incredible vantage point had been erected. (More here: )

That was the high point of the day, both literally and figuratively. I headed back to the hotel to pick up my pack and get on my way, but as I was making my last minute checks of the route, it dawned on me that I still hadn't eaten lunch. Looking at a walk of 27 kms from the standpoint of only 2.5 hours of daylight left, I decided to stay in Siena for another night. I checked back in and then wandered out and promptly got lost.

This is something I enjoy doing in strange cities - just walking about to see what I can see, not paying attention to where I'm going or how I'll get back. (Having a GPS app on my phone has made this far less of an adventure than it was in my pre-smartphone days.) The thing about Siena is, there are very few straight streets, no right angled intersections, no level ground, and lots of fascinating little alleys and walkways to explore. I have never lost my bearings so quicly in my life, and I've played this game in cities across four continents!‎ 

Looking at a street map of the walled city is like looking at a plate of spaghetti, except the spaghetti is relatively flat. It was a wonderful way to spend an afternoon, and because the area within the walls is relatively small, I eventually started recognising landmarks because I'd been walking in vast circles. People watching and monument gawking‎ is great fun, but it also means that when I hit the road again in the morning, I'll be much less likely to waste time getting turned around. I'll simply head directly to the Porta Romana, and then on to Buonconvento some 32 kms down the road. (Gotta make up the "lost" time somehow.) The weather looks good at least until Monday, so it's time to make a last push for Rome. My updates over the next few days may be shorter and/or less frequent as I spend more time walking. 

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