If you are fortunate while attending college or university, there are usually many extraordinary opportunities for earning college class credit abroad. The abundance of destinations all over the world varies from continent and program of studies. Some of the popular destinations tend to be England, France, Spain, China, and Italy for the usual reasons: they have such beautiful landscapes, cosmopolitan cities, and historical or cultural significance. I myself choose Italy the summer after my sophomore year, yes for some of those cliche reasons, but also because of my family ancestry on my father’s side (my last name is Mastrario) as well as my field of study. As a history major with a focus on British and Italian relations during the Risorgimento, it felt quite right to choose Italy. Plus, it didn’t hurt that Italy was gorgeous and had great food. In the summer of 2011, I took my first commercial flight all the way across the ocean and ended up in the small city of Siena, Italy.
2 parts medieval walled city, 1 part Renaissance charm, and 1 part fairy dust and you have Siena. I was just enchanted.
It was perhaps the most magical seasons of my life and definitely gave me the wanderlust for international travel. It was such an ideal experience and I wanted to delve a little deeper into my love affair of Siena, Italy.
One of Siena’s most distinguishing characteristics is the 17 contrade. Imagine a large close-knit family living in a neighborhood supporting each other and embracing the same rivalries. Each of these contradas have their own government entities, museum archives, and their own representing symbols, colors, and flags. Although I stayed in Leocorno (Unicorn) for the duration of my trip, I supported the Civetta contrada because they were the owl contrada. Each contrada has parades leading up to the race. You could literally be walking down a street and all of the sudden you hear drums and Italian singing and you know a parade is near with their tights and flag twirlers. It is supposedly a right of passage to be in the parade groups. Check out the Leocorno parade view from my apartment window!
Perhaps one of the biggest draws to the medieval Tuscan town, the no-rules Palio horse race occurs twice a year in the summer; once on July 2 and the other is August 16. I was lucky enough to go to the July race in 2011 when I was studying abroad for the summer in Siena. For every race, 10 of the 17 contrades neighborhoods are represented by a jockey that rides his horse around the Piazza del Campo in a fast-paced, heart-stopping 3 laps that lasts about a minute or two. The winning neighborhood secures bragging rights and superiority until the next race. Y’all – this is a huge deal to the Sienese people. The parades that they have leading up to the races, the horse lottery, the jockey selections, it is all serious business. I wanted to share with you why the Palio horse race in Siena, Italy should be on your bucket list!
To read more about the Palio and why I think it should be on your bucket list, check out this post:
The Piazza del Campo
A gorgeous shell-shaped space in the center of the walled-city happens to also be where the Palio takes place. You would find it hard to believe this hot-spot for tourists and locals alike is transformed into a horse track if you saw it! I remember when I arrived in 2011, there was dirt all around the perimeter in preparation for the race.
There are a ton of restaurants around but I recommend you avoid those because they are not worth the money – pretty much a tourist trap! Instead, meander among the many hidden streets and try out a local mom-and-pop place! Pizza and Cafes are cheap and so good!
MANY a night was spent sitting in the Campo with some of my classmates drinking bottles of wine and just having the best time.
To survive your first sit-down meal at an Italian restaurant when studying abroad, it’s good to know that bread and water are not free (like in the U.S.) and the service tip is usually included in the bill.
The delicious gelato
This is kinda self-explanatory! I mean, just look at those piles of delicious, creamy goodness. I got gelato so much it was almost an every-day occurrence. Luckily the city is very hilly and I got a little cardio in while walking to and from school.
The language and cooking school – Dante Alighieri
Perhaps the best part about my month abroad was the amazing school I got to learn the Italian language and cook some authentic Italian dishes. Dante Alighieri had that perfect atmosphere and everyone was so gracious!
They were the ones who got us into the Palio Contrada dinner and it was so worth being able to mingle among the locals!
is a dream that keeps returning for the
rest of your life
Insta-worthy shots everywhere you turn. Down every street. In every corner. Literally everywhere.
I mean, if we don’t post it on social media, did it really happen? Siena is full of such beauty no matter which way your turn! Whether you are focusing on the smaller details or the overall picture, Instagram the heck out of it.
The architecture is stunning.
As you would expect with the medieval Renaissance charm, there is just some stunning architecture in Siena. The Torre del Mangia, located at the Palazzo Publico in the Campo was one of my classmate’s favorites but seriously terrified me. My professor warned that the walk up is terribly claustrophobic and since that tends to make me uncomfortable combined with my great fear of falling (I am not scared of heights, just the actual falling – as long as there is a safeguard from my potential plummet, I am good!), I decided to forego the tower walk-up.
BUT if you are looking for a similar view but not quite as daunting (read that as terrifying for me), you should check out the view from the duomo, Siena‘s gorgeous cathedral (as seen in the picture above)! The view from the top of the baptistry is just perfect. You can see Tuscany in all of its glory with love Siena surrounding you too. But the Duomo is a glorious sight in itself. The facade is striking in its contrasting colors. Once insides, the dome, and the lovely tiled floor just add to the experience.
Be sure that when you visit the Duomo, you wear clothes that are covering your shoulders and your legs above your knee. They do provide these covers to wear if you don’t happen to have appropriate attire but I always felt like it was a sign of respect to be prepared.
One more great point of architecture is the Fontebranda. I went by one afternoon and it is not a fountain that you would expect! According to Walks of Italy,
“The façade, with three arches, is adorned with four stone lions. In the past, each basin served a purpose: one was for drinking water, another for animals to drink from and the third, a
washtub. The fountain was so fundamental in Siena’s water supply, it even was mentioned by Dante in the 30th canto of his Inferno.”
Saint Catherine of Siena, her relic at Basilica of San Domenico, and her sanctuary at her home.
Who doesn’t love seeing a dried, mummified looking head that is hundreds of years old? If you are interested in that sort of thing, you should to Basilica of San Domenico and go see the religious relic that is St. Catherine of Siena‘s head. Although you cannot get really close to it, I think it is worth a quick visit. Plus the Basilica is lovely in it’s own right, although definitely not as ornate as the Duomo. But in related matters, a visit of St. Catherine of Siena‘s home and sanctuary is a must! The gorgeous little chapel seems to be a hidden gem to most tourists and it is a must see in the middle of the Oca contrada.
Palazzo Publico and the stunning art
The Palazzo Publico is located in the heart of Siena on the Campo. This is essentially where everything happens in the city in regards to the Palio horse race in the summer. This is also where the Torre del mangia that you can climb (see above). I visited the Palazzo for a class and go to view the iconic artwork of Ambrogio Lorenzetti. His word The Allegory of Good and Bad Government, which was completed in 1339, is a sight to behold. Although time has faded some of the elements, so much of it is still intact and there is just so many hidden messages. I think there is something very special about getting to actually stand in person and study the fresco versus learning about it in a classroom. Seeing the scale, the minute details, and being able to reflect while right in front of it – what an incredible experience. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the work myself because photography is not allowed in order to extend the life of the work. But a quick google search definitely provides lovely images.
Perfect base city for traveling Italy
Have you ever wanted to go to
and so many more? Most of them are just a train ride away! I went all over the place in my tour of Italy while abroad for the month. Navigating the public transportation is super easy but beware of train strikes!
Siena is a medieval Tuscan city that sparkles like no other! Imagine living in Tuscany, learning the Italian language, the history, tasting the fresh and scrumptious food all while experiencing the Italian thrill of the Palio.
Have you ever studied abroad?
Did you love your experience like I did?
Ever been to Siena?
Let me know what your favorite part of immersing yourself in a culture!