Misleading & Mistaken in Siena

Not Just Another Today is August 16th, the day of the Palio dell’Assunta in Siena. If you’re not sure che cavolo (literally: what the cabbage, used like what the heck) I’m talking about, click here and here and here to read up on the Palio.

Although this summer has been the hottest summer in Tuscany in 130 years or something (and no, I don’t have air conditioning), the weather these last few days has taken a real turn for the brutto (ugly). It’s been rainy, kinda cold. Thunder and lighting. I actually had to wear a sweater the other night for the first time in months.

What does this have to do with anything?

As you know, the Palio is run in Siena’s stunning Piazza del Campo, on a track made of tufo sand. The track is laid in the piazza a week or so before the race so that the cavalli (horses) and fantini (jockeys) can do their prove (trial runs). This is all well and good, but when it rains, the track gets wet and then becomes too dangerous to use.

Yesterday it rained enough that the Prova Generale (the trial run on the night before the Palio) was cancelled. Today, we all waited patiently to hear if the Palio itself would be postponed (never cancelled) because of the track conditions.

So we waited and waited for the official sign to come mid-afternoon today.

What were we waiting for?

A solid-colour bandiera (flag) to be hung out one of the windows of the Palazzo Comunale (City Hall, probably my favourite building on earth) to signal that the race would be put off (this is important) until the conditions became suitable again. If the Palio was going to go on, there would be no special flag flown, just the ones of the 10 contradas that were running the race, which have been flying for days.

Around 2pm today, this is what we saw:

Bandiera Verde, credit Tabata Psillakis

Bandiera Verde, credit Tabata Psillakis

, it’s green.

In the rest of the world, green means go. In Siena, apparently, it means no-go.

Any of the other times I’ve been here for the Palio, it’s been run as per normal and never postponed, so I’d never encountered the “green flag of no” before today. But it really shouldn’t surprise me.

You see, when I first started coming to Siena, I noticed quite a few other things here that weren’t quite what common logic would like them to be.

Take navigating the city streets, for example. Often you have to go up a hill just to go back to your destination that’s actually down. You have to go left to finally end up right. You have to go south to finish north, sometimes east to finish west. Missing a turn and figuring, “I’ll just take the next cross street” doesn’t help you, because the idea of a “cross street” doesn’t exist and the next turn you take has you doubling back and ending up anywhere but where you want to be. I’ll bet on it.

Don’t just take my word for it though, please follow these signs that have you going in two different directions to get to the Campo:

Finding your way...

Finding your way…

And although this has since been changed, would anyone like to take a guess at what the city bus company here was called when I first set foot in Siena?


Davvero. Really. I’m not joking. And to make matters worse, the full legal name of the company was TRAIN S.P.A, so you really had no idea what you were getting!

The TRAIN bus in Siena.

Beautiful, isn’t it? So typically Italian, this hodgepodge of things that are very fuorvianti (misleading).

And when they finally get to running the Palio once the track dries up, do you know which is the worst place to finish in? In the rest of the world, out of 10 horses, we’d probably say the worst place to finish was 10th. In Siena, out of 10 places, the worst place to finish is second. Because you were so close; you almost could have come first.

Except you didn’t.

Underground Siena: A Trip Through The “Bottini”

Not Just Another

It seems like everywhere you go, there’s something to see under the surface. Paris has its underground sewer tour, and Rome has its catacombs. Toronto has the PATH (which every Italian seems to know about – I have no idea how…), and Moscow has its famously beautiful subway stations. And Siena, well Siena has its “bottini”.

The word “bottini” itself doesn’t have much meaning. Don’t bother trying to find a translation in a place like WordReference.com – it’ll only lead you astray. “Bottini” in Siena refers to the sophisticated series of underground aqueducts that were used to bring water to the city for centuries. They’re called “bottini” from the word botte (barrel) as the tunnels were dug with barrel-vaulted ceilings. And yes, it’s possible to visit them.

A quick historical rundown: the Romans loved their above ground aqueducts, and they’re something that can still be seen to this day in many European cities. The Etruscans, (pre-Tuscans, if you will) liked underground ones, which they built when they were occupying the land where Siena would then be constructed.

Siena, as a city, has no right to actually be in the position that it’s in, because it’s not located near any major source of water. Sure, the city was built on three hills as a strategic defense point, but we’re far from the coast or any significant source of water. Since water’s actually pretty important (who knew?) this was a bit of a problema for the Siennese of the 11th and 12th centuries, even though there was rumoured to be a river, the Diana, that flowed underneath the town. (To my knowledge, the river was never found, but Siena still has a street named after it – Via della Diana).

While in many other places, individual families would drill wells and look for water, Siena as a city organized a sophisticated system of bottini by tapping into old infrastructures already put into place by the Etruscans to bring water into the city. The water was gathered into various “fonti”, or basins, in various parts of the city. Think Fontebranda, Fonte Gaia (in the Piazza del Campo) and the Fonti di Pescaia. The water, which to this day in Siena remains very heavily calcified, was “purified” as it flowed through a series of basins where impurities would settle to the bottom and the cleaner water would move along.

These fonti were heavily guarded, and the water was further separated into basins for different purposes, the first one being drinking, then washing (thank God!) and then for watering crops or giving to animals. Because Siena used a collective water source, however, the city was much more susceptible to disease or poisoning, as it spread more easily through the communal water system. The peste (plague) really did them in in the 1300’s.

Popular history says that the only woman to ever be burned alive in Siena was found by a guard in the middle of the night at one of the fonti with no good explanation for what she was doing there. The logical conclusion was that she was up to no good, so they burned her.

The present-day entrance to the bottini and the Museo dell’Acqua is located at the Fonti di Pescaia in Siena. For anyone who has visited Siena, the entrance to the bottini looks a lot like Fontebranda, which you probably would have seen, but it’s not the same place.

Entrance to the bottini at Fonti di Pescaia

Entrance to the bottini at Fonti di Pescaia

The guided visit is done by a volunteer, and the first part is through the Museo dell’Acqua. Opened in 2010, it’s a pretty interesting look at Siena’s relationship with water (which, I know, may not sound ALL that interesting, but it is). The museum makes use of various interactive technologies to explain to visitors the history of the city’s water sources, and it’s surprisingly well done. The audio soundtracks are only available in Italian, I believe, but they at least had the foresight to translate some of the written exhibit descriptions into English.

Siena's Museo dell'Acqua

Siena’s Museo dell’Acqua

Siena's Museo dell'Acqua

Siena’s Museo dell’Acqua

Then it’s underground and into the bottini.

Even though the bottini stopped being used in the early part of the 20th century, a trickle of water still runs through them. Visitors descend into the darkness and follow the stream of water on its path for awhile, gaining a better understanding of just what kind of effort it took to move this water from the countryside into the city.

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Our tour in the Bottini.

Our tour in the Bottini.

Then it’s outside for a look into the basin, still full of water to this day. Remnants of frescoes can still be seen on the vaulted ceiling, and you can just imagine the hustle and bustle that would have surrounded such an important place in town.

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The bottini and the Museo dell’Acqua are a side of Siena not many people know about, and for good reason. Organizing a tour of the bottini and the related Museo dell’Acqua requires a person to do salti mortali (jump through hoops) and be very patient.

Tours need to be booked by either calling or sending an email to the contacts listed on the webpage of the Comune di Siena, and although I’ve never tried to make a reservation myself, I’ve been told it has to be done months and months in advance, and with no guarantee that your request will ever actually be granted even when you’ve given enough advance notice. Don’t believe me? Read the reviews on TripAdvisor. The Museo dell’Acqua is ranked #57 out of 84 things to do in Siena, and many of the reviews make reference to the pain in the butt process of organizing a tour.

Oh so Italian.

I learned about the bottini not by being in Siena, actually, but by reading the excellent historical fiction novel Juliet, by Anne Fortier, which is set in Siena. I consiglio vivamente (highly recommend) grabbing a copy. James Bond fans will also recognize that part of the Quantum of Solace film was shot in the bottini as well.

I was fortunate enough to be invited along on a tour of the bottini by Deborah and Massi of Italy Unfiltered. Deborah and Massi are personal friends of mine who have also started organizing great tours, excursions and activities for people visiting the Siena area.

Deborah & I

Deborah & I

All in all, my tour of the bottini and visit to the Museo dell’Acqua was an interesting look at a little-known but vital part of Siena’s history. If you know (months and months and months) in advance that you’re coming to Siena, I’d recommend trying to organize a tour. It’ll take about 1-1.5 hours, and it’s something out-of-the-ordinary and off the beaten path.

The Horses Are Running… But The Trains Are Not

INot Just Another "Dolce Vita"f you’re not sure what the horse reference is about in the title of this post, you need to do some reading about Il Palio di Siena. Read here and here and here for more information.

On the day of Il Palio di Provenzano 2015 (Palio dedicated to Our Lady of Provenzano), to say it was hot would be an understatement. The devil himself would have preferred inferno to the kind of weather Siena was experiencing on July 2nd. However, the weather is no match for a centuries-old tradition such as the Palio, and the race had to go on.

Having seen the Palio 4 times before, I knew exactly what the day would entail. Traffic jams (both human and vehicle) in and all around Siena. Hours crammed shoulder to shoulder in the piazza under the scorching sun waiting for the race to begin. Stores would be closed. People would be off work. The city would be jam-packed, alive and buzzing. And of course, I wanted to be in the thick of it all.

This little one's got the best seat in the house.

This little one had the best seat in the house.

Problem is, I had to be in the office that day. Outside of Siena. With no car, Vespa or horse of my own to take me back into town. Thus, I had to rely on mezzi pubblici (public transit) to move around. Now, usually this isn’t an issue. Bus in the morning, train home at night, and I have all the schedules for both written down in my hand-dandy notebook that goes everywhere with me. No problem. Nessun problema. I’d organize my day and make it back into Siena with lots of time to spare before the race was set to begin. I left the house feeling confident I could make it work, and excited to see what this year’s July Palio would be like.

The Corteo Storico passing through town before the Palio.

The Corteo Storico passing through town before the Palio.

By the time 4:45 rolled around, I was finishing up my tasks for the day and saying ciao to my colleagues. The train comes just after 5, I knew, and it’s about a 10 minute walk to the station from the office. Perfetto. I stepped out into the hot sun, donned my sunglasses and started walking towards the station. Down the sidewalk, past the roundabout, up the ramp, onto the platform. I validated my ticket and took my usual seat on the scorching hot platform bench (made of metal, positioned in the sun, of course) to wait for my treno to arrive.

Down the track, the signals started to flash and the loudspeaker crackled on. Ahhh, excellent. It was going to be right on time. I listened for the train arrival message I almost knew by heart, absentmindedly scrolling through my phone.

“We wish to inform our passengers that the regional train xxxx leaving from xxxxx and heading to Siena at 5:00…”

Yep, sounds about right… Scroll, scroll, scroll.

“…is cancelled today.”

Scroll, scroll, scr— WHAT? My head snapped up and my mouth fell open. No, no, no, no, NO!

“TrenItalia wishes its passengers a pleasant journey.”

Pleasant journey, un cavolo! (Yeah right, a pleasant journey!)

I looked down at my train ticket, no longer useful, and gave it a satisfying rip right down the middle. Now what!? A look at the bus schedule told me that the bus was supposed to come at the same time as the train. (Great). In another spot. (Not great). Across town. (Not great at all). My stomach sank as I realized there was no way I would make it.

And when was the next train? In an hour. But was it even running? Who knew?! And even if it was, it would potentially get me back into town too late to get into the piazza before it closed. Then I’d be watching the Palio on tv with none of the same excitement or rush as standing in the piazza would give.

A taxi maybe? But no, no taxis in this tiny Tuscan town. Have one come from Siena? On Palio day? Not likely.

I peeled myself off the bench and headed back down the platform ramp to street level. I’d just head back to the office and see if I could bum a ride off of someone going back to Siena. Maybe. Except no one was leaving work at the same time as me. So the likelihood of someone being able to give me a ride was…

Nulla. Nothing. Zero. Or less.

Well, I’d head back into the office anyways and sit in the air conditioning, then head back and hope to make the next train. If it was running. I opened my phone to the Trenitalia website to try and find out, and started walking back past the roundabout.

A quick search told me that no, it didn’t look like the next train was running either. Now I was really done. Just as I was considering starting a Palio pilgrimage walk back to Siena (10kms+) I glanced back up from my phone and caught a glimpse of a bus, a bus which must have materialized out of thin air because it wasn’t there a second before, coming around the roundabout beside me.

It couldn’t be my bus. My bus was supposed to be here when the train was. Minutes ago. Maybe even 10 minutes ago. I’d be another bus. Another bus that couldn’t help me. I was sure of it.

1689781-bus-urbano-2010_1But as it approached, its orange lighted letters came into focus in front of my sunglasses and miracle of miracles! It was my bus. The bus to Siena. The bus that would take me right back into town in time for the Palio.

So, fighting the urge to do a ridiculous victory dance right there at the roundabout, I stuck out my hand and did my best impression of a hitchhiker. The driver saw me, smiled, slowed down, and then, just as I was starting to relax, rolled right past me.


Never one to give up easily, I started running. As fast as my sandal-clad feet would allow. And run I did, right up to the next bus stop, where the driver was patiently waiting for me to arrive. I jumped through the open door (with much more success than I did here), launched a breathless (but heartfelt!) “grazie!” in his direction and plunked myself down on a seat, feeling victorious and thanking my lucky stars for my good fortune.

Really, I shouldn’t have expected any different though, for two reasons:

1) Il palio porta fortuna! The Palio brings luck!

2) As we all know, Italian buses never run on schedule.

To see what happened after I finally got to the piazza, follow this link and watch the Palio.