The Tuscan city’s unique aesthetic offers a gorgeous backdrop to exploring and even inspired Crayola’s iconic crayon.
During the Renaissance, Siena produced an iron oxide earth pigment that when heated, turned a distinctive reddish brown color. “Burnt Siena” defined the city’s color palette and to this day, is one of the most widely used brown pigments by artists.Turns out Crayola got its inspiration from picturesque Siena, Italy.
After a week-long stay in Venice, we arrived to Siena by train via Florence, and settled into a hostel just outside the city. Taking a bus to the historic center, we arrived just in time for la passeggiata. The evening stroll is one of my favorite aspects of European living. Where young and old hit the streets to leave all the worries of the day behind and catch up with friends and loved ones. Sure, people are out and about in places like New York City and San Francisco. But in smaller cities and towns, a rising suburban population has left many downtowns deserted. The notion of gathering on the streets and walking with our neighbors every night just doesn’t seem to be a consideration.
After our evening stroll, we enjoyed an entertaining dinner at a local trattoria. Unable to decipher the special pasta, our waiter began an intricate game of menu charades. He pointed to his nose, then swept his arm straight out. As his gestures became more exaggerated, we became more confused. After wrongly guessing a cow and (thankfully) a rat, the local couple beside us stepped in to help: “it is a pig’s brother.” Aha! Wild boar.
Eating in Siena is a luxurious experience. Even simple snacks from the market are a delicacy.
Combined with the town’s iconic scenery, and it’s bella vita at its finest. We munched on “pain comunale” (basic baguette) and Pecorino cheese overlooking the town’s peaceful hilltop homes. We enjoyed 1 euro pizza slices while people-watching on the tiny, rickety balcony of Key Largo bar. And we savored Pistachio gelato (an Italian classic) while basking in the warm sun of Il Campo square. Ahhhh…
No visit to Siena would be complete without visiting the riotous Siena Cathedral. With its crisp black and white stripes, the Gothic medieval church is unlike any we’ve seen before. Black and white represent the color of the horses of the legendary city’s founders, Senius and Aschius. We nicknamed it the “Beetlejuice” church (probably not the first to do so.)
Symbolism can also be found in Siena’s picturesque neighborhoods. Using a free self-walking guide we picked up from the bus station, we strolled through the different “contrades” (districts), each represented by a unique animal or object. From seashells and towers, to owls and dragons, these symbols were like a portal into medieval times. Out of 59 original contrades, only 17 remain. Ten of the districts participate in the famous Palio, a lively medieval horse race that attracts over 15,000 people to Siena every year.
Hiking along the steep hills of the Tuscan countryside, we got a different perspective of Siena’s distinct look and feel.
Other Italian cities typically have plaster covering their buildings, painted in various pastel shades. But here, exposed brick was everywhere, highlighting that famed Burnt Siena color. We speculated why that was – did the bricks serve a specific function (heating or cooling?). Or perhaps when the plague struck in 1348, the residents couldn’t afford to cover the buildings in plaster?
In any case, looking at the skyline from afar, we marveled at the beauty of this singular hue. A color rich in history, stories and symbolism that created a memorable town unlike any other in Italy.