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Thursday, May 5, 2011

A Car Tour In The Italian Middle Ages: Siena And The Via Francigena

Siena piazza del campo 1996Image via Wikipedia

"Cor magis tibi Sena pandit" (Siena opens up a greater heart than this gate) is the sign that greets visitors at Camollia gate, one of the gateways to the historic centre of Siena. This cordial invitation is the business card of a city that needs no introduction.

Founded, according to a popular legend, by Remus, brother of the legendary founder of Rome, Romulus, Siena is an open-air museum. The severe palaces and steep alleys of the old town have remained the same since the middle ages when Siena was an independent republic. A large part of the cities ancient pride is still present in the temperament of its citizens, which is expressed fully on July the 2nd and August the 16th of each year during the famous Palio festival, perhaps the oldest and most authentic popular celebration in Italy. In the heart of the city is the magnificent shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, dominated by the high Torre del Mangia, considered one of the most beautiful squares in Europe for architectural harmony and balance. However Siena also offers beautiful churches and museums in addition to the ability to surprise even the most hurried visitor with unforgettable views. The old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

After visiting Siena, it's time to divert onto the 447 road until you reach one of the most picturesque monuments in Italy: the Abbey of San Galgano. The Abbazia di San Galgano is a splendid example of a Cistercian abbey, consecrated in 1288. It was an important centre of faith until the middle of the 15th century, when it then gradually tumbled down and was even used as a farm during the 18th century. During the nineteenth century the restoration of the abbey began in order to preserve the original structure. The lack of roof and the scenic location makes it one of the most impressive monuments of Tuscany. Recently, the abbey has been used to host events and concerts. The abbey is also blessed with a beautiful and unusual light, making it even more fascinating. Next to the magnificent ruins stands the beautiful chapel of Montesiepi which dates back to the thirteenth century. The chapel preserves the mysterious "Sword in the stone", a real sword of the 12th century stuck in the floor, according to a legend, belonging to San Galgano himself. The story of Galgano - a knight who abandons his weapons symbolically, passing from the sword to the cross - closely corresponds with the myth of Excalibur, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.

To get to the next destination of our itinerary it's necessary to drive towards Siena and reach the ancient Via Francigena, the route that linked Rome to Canterbury, used by pilgrims since the twelfth century. Indicated on maps as SS2 it's the ideal road for those who want to enjoy fascinating glimpses of the Tuscan countryside. At about 15 km from Siena, in the direction of Florence, appears, as if in a dream, a vision of magic: the mighty walls of Monteriggioni. Monteriggioni is a beautiful, small town surrounded by 14 fortified towers. During the Middle Ages it offered a shelter to the people of Siena during the wars against Florence. Perfectly preserved and closed to traffic, in July the village of Monteriggioni hosts one of the most beautiful medieval festival in Italy. The town was founded around an existing farm and still retains a rural character, as you can guess by the shape of the main square, much like that of a private courtyard.

But the Via Francigena has more wonders to unveil: just a few kilometres ahead appears one of the most famous skylines in Italy: the profile of the towers of San Gimignano. Known as the "city of beautiful towers", San Gimignano is a destination not to be missed by travellers, with its ancient streets, the warm colours of its medieval buildings and the gentle Tuscan countryside that surrounds the town. It's worth a visit to the "Parco della Rocca", which offers a splendid panoramic view, the Collegiate Romanesque featuring frescoes by Domenico Ghirlandaio and the thirteenth-century church of St. Augustine, enriched during the fifteenth century with frescoes by Benozzo Bozzoli. Above all, try to get to San Gimignano at dusk when the light that bathes the ancient towers makes this little old town even more charming: you will not regret it!

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