On a warm, sunny October afternoon I find Siena is busy with students and sightseers who are shopping or just soaking up the sun on the sloping pavement of the Campo, where the famous Palio horseraces take place in August and where a James Bond action sequence was shot for the film Quantum of Solace. I hadn’t realised just how hilly Siena is. Even the Campo is laid out on quite a serious slant dropping down towards the Palazzo Publico and the 87m high Mangia Tower that is attached to it and a focal point for anyone visiting the city. Due to the lateness of the day, I’m unable to climb to the top, so I don’t have to face the 400 to 505 steps which the guidebooks and websites fail to agree on.
Armed with a detailed map I am able to locate the Duomo. Siena’s cathedral is huge with a striking combination of black and white marble blocks forming its main structure and a bell tower whose number of window arches seem to increase with height. I purchase a €12 combined ticket and decide to start small and at the bottom by visiting the Baptistry. The detailed bronze reliefs on the baptismal font, including one by Donatella, are overshadowed by the amazing frescoes which adorn the walls and ceiling.
Another small but beautiful place is the crypt where 13th century frescoes were uncovered in 1999 during a restoration project which also revealed the interesting architectural features of the Duomo’s foundations.
It’s getting late and I want to see the view of the city from the imposing fortress walls, so I cut down through the narrow Via D Galluzza, with its aerial brick corridors high overhead connecting adjacent buildings. On my route up, I stop at the house of St Catherine, patron saint of the city. Not much remains of her house as the site has been swallowed by chapels, cloisters and a souvenir shop selling trinkets with her image. The saint herself now resides in the huge and imposing Church of San Domenico built on the hill above. Well, at least her head is kept in a glass and marble tabernacle in a small side chapel. The rest of her remains are probably scattered across the world in holy reliquaries, the souvenirs of medieval times.
As the sun sets over the red-tiled rooftops of the city and the tour groups return to their coaches, I decide on an early morning plan of action to conclude my sightseeing.
The next day I rise with the sun but in the end, it doesn’t feel like such an early start as daylight saving kicked in and the clocks went back by 1 hour. I arrive at the huge doors of the cathedral at 9.25 with only a handful of other people anxiously waiting the opportunity to see inside. When we are finally allowed to enter, we are welcomed with a glorious site of tall, black and white pillars, rows of pious popes looking down from above, intricate frescoes and 56 marble floor panels of biblical and mythological scenes.
The floor is often covered to protect these wonderful works of art, created by the best artists of the 14th to 16th centuries, but today we are lucky to see them in their full glory. I’m particularly drawn to the huge, marble pulpit of Nicola Pisano with its gentle curving staircase and elaborate reliefs depicting the life of Jesus. Equally alluring are the decorative books and colourful frescoes in the Piccolomini Library which recall the life of Aeneas who became Pope in 1458 and canonised Catherine Benincasa of Siena, the first female saint.
An hour later, I join the other eager beavers waiting to enter the Museo dell’Opera. As the doors open, we don’t pause to look at the works on display but immediately climb the wide marble stairs to the third floor and a small doorway in the far right corner. For it is here that we can access the Facciatone. In 1248, following a huge decrease in the population due to the Black Death, the funds for the building of the Duomo were stopped and the ambitious extension was halted.
What remains is a side aisle that now houses the Museo dell’Opera and a tall, narrow end wall. A constricted, stone stairway spirals to the top where, from the thin walkway, I’m rewarded with views over the city and across to the Duomo where I can see other people enjoying views from a balcony on the dome. Time is limited to 15 minutes but it’s enough to feel on top of the world and as I descend back down to the museum, I can’t stop grinning.