Twice a year, the Piazza del Campo thunders. Normally a picturesque place and rather serene, the square is lined with tables where al fresco dinners end and diners tarry with their last drops of espresso, or limoncello. The irregular, shell-shaped, sloping oval of the square spreads out under medieval buttresses and Torre del Mangia, a clock tower that, when completed in 1348, was one of the tallest non-church towers in Italy. Stepping out from the labyrinth of lanes leading up to it—11 separate, shaded streets feed into the square—feels like taking a trip back to the Middle Ages.
But during the Palio di Siena, which takes place twice every year in July and August, everything gets loud. Ten bareback riders, each one decked out in the colors of their “contrade,” or city district, hoof it hard on the best horses in the region, racing toward victory on soil laid around the perimeter for the occasion. It’s a wild spectacle, perhaps most memorably depicted in the James Bond film, "Quantum of Solace."
The opening scenes of the movie cut between the torrid action of the equine race and a breathless chase as Mr. Bond does everything he can to get away from the bad guys. After streaming a few minutes of the film while standing on the square—a slightly surreal moment—I sat down for dinner nearby. Chatting with the owner of the restaurant, I believed for a moment that I’d stumbled across one of the brave riders. He spoke first-hand about the race. It turned out that this wasn’t the case; something I’d see, unmistakably, in the photos he showed me after I’d polished off my pasta.
In many ways, Siena is the perfect Tuscan town. Not overrun with tourists like Florence, it’s a popular destination for day trippers from larger cities nearby. But once the tour buses leave, you have the whole place to yourself—and the 55,000 locals living in this small city, of course.
The Piazza del Campo is one of Europe’s most perfectly-preserved medieval squares. Fan-shaped, it was paved in red brick in 1349. Eight lines of travertine divide it into sections; a total of nine wedges represent the Noveschi (also called the Nine, or the IX), who governed Siena during its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries. The Republic of Siena flourished under the Noveschi, who brought political and economic stability and completed major public works, including much of the city walls and the grand cathedral. They ruled until the Black Death reached Siena and contributed to a popular uprising and change in government in 1355. Two hundred years later, in 1555, the Republic of Siena officially ceased to exist when its forces lost to Florence, its rival, and was replaced with Florentine rule.
But the Nine left behind a strong legacy that’s still apparent even on a casual stroll. Traveling with family, we stayed at a former monastery just inside the city walls. Hanging out in the courtyard, we grazed on Italian meats and cheeses—mortadella and pecorino and buffalo mozzarella, plus olives and crusty fresh bread, all from the counter at a little grocery store next door.
We spent our days just roaming, passing through Piazza del Campo several times, popping into little shops along the way. The smiling owner of a small delicatessen schooled us on the distinctions between Italian sausages. At another store, workers happily offered samples of olive oil, truffle spreads, sweet candies, and meloncello, a bright, fruity drink.
My niece and nephew marveled at strange Italian trinkets in a bargain store where everything sold for one euro. We browsed books—all Italian, as it turned out—at a big libreria with an open-balcony second floor. We lingered over drinks, then dinner, at a patio restaurant overlooking the rolling hills, covered in vineyards.
We spent a solid half day touring the Duomo di Siena. Consecrated in 1215 and completed in 1348, this grand cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is distinctively zebra-striped; the black and white pattern is the traditional symbol of the city, appearing also on its coat of arms. Inside, striped columns lead to a gilded dome meant to signify the sun, with a checkerboard floor beneath. Statues and busts of saints, prophets and emperors peer out from above. The finest craftsmen of the age worked on the place, including Bernini and Donatello.
And we learned more about the Palio di Siena. First run in 1633, centuries of tradition surround this event. There’s a great deal of time and energy spent on the lead-up: lottery drawings to pick the horses (which are blessed in official religious ceremonies), a pageant held just beforehand, processions, open-air dinners—not to mention the endless speculation on winners and losers by the locals. But the race itself takes only between a minute and 90 seconds to complete, with chaotic sounds, relentless fury, and riders often thrown to the ground. Sometimes, spectators even jump into the fray. That’s what Marcello, the restaurant owner, did.