Saturday, March 1, 2014

Getting Un-lost, to see the guidebooks' favorites

After a few minutes of genuine concern – good grief, how was I going to find the group if  I couldn’t even hear the guide over my headset? – I suddenly remembered that the other major sight we were to see was the main piazza.  And since the Duomo sits at the top of the town, I figured my best bet was to follow the meandering street we’d come up, down, and surely, at some point, there would be some indication of whence lay one of the most famous city squares in the world.

And sure enough, I hadn’t meandered long when I saw that, at a fork in the street, most of the people were going off to the right.  And I was pretty sure we’d come up that street on the left.  So I went right, with the crowd, and a couple of minutes later I could hear snippets of lecture coming over my headset.  And in another couple of minutes I came out into the bright sunshine pouring down into a vast open area full of people.  And over to my right, being lectured to, I spotted my group.  Oh, frabjous day, I was un-lost.

Piazza del Campo
But now that I knew where they were, I took a moment to take in the scene.  The main part of the Piazza del Campo is this huge shallow bowl, not circular-shaped, but rather (as my guidebook helpfully suggested) fan-shaped, the straight line of the opened fan running in front of the Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall).  The brick bowl slopes gently up from there, and people sit about here and there on the sloping bricks, even lie back to soak up the sun.  All around the rim of the plaza are cafes, restaurants, pizza shops, sidewalk vendors.

Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall), Siena
I have to say something about the City Hall building.  It is somewhat like the one in Florence, though not quite so awkward-looking.  The one in Florence, whose official name is the Palazzo Vecchio, dates from 1322, the one in Siena from 1342, which undoubtedly accounts for their similarity.  The one in Florence  is this big, flat-faced square building, topped with a crenelated roof,  in the middle of which stands a very tall bell tower, which I must say looks spectacularly phallic.  The Siena City Hall is wider, and lower; it’s proportions are more pleasing, and the bottom floor is saved from the blankness of the rest of the building by a line of white arches.  But its bell tower is very tall, and sits far to one side, completely negating those pleasing proportions.  I’m including pictures of both, so you can decide for yourself which is more attractive.  Much is made of both buildings, which were the center of civic life in the middle ages, and are still.  For me the most impressive thing about them is that they have been standing, and functional, for almost 700 years.
Palazzo Vecchio (City Hall), Florence

But as to Il Campo itself (its name, The Field, comes from the time when it really was a field, outside the city walls): its biggest claim to fame is the Palio, a horse race held there every July 2nd and August 16th.  Thousands of people crowd into this piazza, and spill over into the narrow side streets, to watch this race.  The riders ride bareback, around the embankment that circles the sunken piazza.  There’s a picture in my Eyewitness Travel guidebook, and I can’t believe all the people – it’s like Times Square on New Year’s Eve, but more concentrated.  Can’t see how most of those people could see the riders, never mind the horses.  And apparently those cheering fans can’t go to the bathroom, because someone said no outdoor facilities are provided.

And what does the winner of this spectacular event win?  A large banner (which is what “palio”means).

When I rejoined the group, I got a number of “There she is!” and Gianni assured me that as soon as he had dismissed everyone for lunch, he had planned to come looking for me (I really was the bane of his existence). Pat and I settled at an outside table at one of the cafes, and did a little people watching, while consuming a perfectly nice lunch – one of those moments that I said earlier we didn’t get enough of on the trip.  Then we went looking for a bank, as I was drastically low on cash, and it really is better to deal in that than in credit cards, especially in small shops and cafes.  I looked up how to say “bank” (una banca), and was directed up a kind of alley lined with shops to the narrow, hilly streets beyond, where we wandered for a while, trying to find that banca. When we did, we found we couldn’t get into the little vestibule where they had the ATMs, because you needed a card key to get inside.  When a lady came along and helpfully used her key to get us inside, we couldn’t get the ATM to give us any money.  A frustrating 15 minutes, especially since we both felt we should be exploring.

When we returned to the group it was time to go (off to the wine tasting, see Note of July 27, 2013), which did not set well with most of us in the group; we simply had not had enough time to explore this fascinating, ancient little city.  One should have at least a full day; we had about four hours.  A word to the wise.

A final note: as we were walking back to the bus – here, as elsewhere, tour buses must park a good way outside the historic areas to be visited – I spotted an ATM on the outside wall of una banca.   I rushed over to use it, and right behind me was another member of the group, who had also not been able to locate an ATM earlier.  The group just kept going, which annoyed us both.  Ben, the fellow with me, a big, bluff  man who had appointed himself class clown -- and often was quite amusing, in his blank-faced way -- was not amused now, especially since the group had waited for one of our members while she slipped into a sweet shop to buy some candy.  He grouchily muttered “For her they could wait," while I was looking over my shoulder, and seeing with relief that Doug, a tall fellow from Texas who always wore a baseball cap, was waving it in the air as he walked on, so that we could see to follow.  The group really had gotten good about looking out for one another.

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