A Travellerspoint blog

Siena

"I took many trips to Siena, and was struck by its beauty, but also by the beauty of the Siennese themselves." ~ Roger Allam

sunny 13 °C
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Where did we stay? Hotel Garden

Cobblestoned streets, narrow alleys, brown tiled roofs and towers give Siena its distinctly Medieval feel. All buildings in the town have the same brownish colour. The colour Sienna takes its name from this city, as this is where it was produced during the Renaissance. The city is rich in history and culture. A total of 7 popes originated from Siena and it has the oldest bank in the world. The city is surrounded by high medieval walls and until 100 years ago, the gates of the city were still locked every night. Siena is an ancient city in Tuscany, that made its money by many travellers coming through the area on their way to Rome. During the 14th century, Siena was as rich as big European cities such as Paris and London.

"I took many trips to Siena, and was struck by its beauty, but also by the beauty of the Siennese themselves. They are dark, fierce, and aristocratic, very different to the much paler Venetians or Florentines. They have always looked like this, as the paintings of their ancestors testify. I observed the groups of young people, the lounging grace with which they wore their clothes, their sense of always being on show. I walked the streets, they paraded them. It did not matter that I do not speak a word of Italian; I made up stories about them, and took surreptitious photographs." ~ Roger Allam

The walls of Siena: The tour bus had to park outside the thick Medieval walls, and we walked further towards the town centre.
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The medieval streets of Siena
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THE CONTRADE OF SIENA

Siena is divided into 17 contrades (districts). Each district has their own symbol and flag. Some of the districts are Aquila (Eagle), Drago (Dragon), and Torre (Tower). In the Middle Ages, each Contrade was a different military troop, set up to defend Siena against Florence and the Medici. As time has gone by, the contrade have lost their military functions and the districts are simply areas of local patriotism. Loyalty to your contrade is taken so seriously, that marrying outside of your contrade is seen as a 'mixed marriage'. Siena may be a maze of alleyways, but it is always easy to know in which contrade you find yourself. The symbols of each contrade are displayed everywhere to designate territory. Each contrade has their own symbol, flag, animal, mythological associations, traditions, etc. The entire history and way of life in Siena is shaped around the contrade you are from.

Symbols of the Selva district (left) and the Aquila district (right)
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Piazza del Campo

The entire city is built around the Piazza del Campo. As the 17 different districts have strict boundaries, the Piazza is the only neutral ground in Siena. It is forbidden to fight in the Piazza. It is the principal public space in Siena and regarded as one of the greatest medieval squares in Europe. The square is shell-shaped and the brick patterns divide the Campo into 9 sections. Locals come here to relax and bask in the sun.

The Piazza del Campo
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Twice a year, the famous Palio di Siena horse race is held around the Campo. 17 Horses take part in the race, each jockey representing one of the 17 districts. The race is fast and dangerous. In the past a lot of bribery used to take place, but in the last couple of years it has been made law that no amateur jockeys may race and only professionals are to be used. The James Bond movie, Quantum of Solace, features the Palio di Siena as well as scenes from Siena.

Scenes from Quantum of Solace featuring the horse race in the Piazza
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TORRE DEL MANGIA

The square also hosts the Palazzo Pubblico (the town hall), and the Torre del Mangia. The tower is literally named 'Tower of the Eater', after Giovanni di Balduccio, who was known for his gluttony. At 102m, it is built exactly the same height as the cathedral in Siena, as a sign that the church and the state have the same amount of power. Climbing the more than 400 steps, gives you an amazing view of the whole of Siena and is truly worth it. The steps are not for the unfit and if you have a fear of heights, do not look down the middle of the steps.

The tower sticking out above the town
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Climbing the steps of the tower
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Views of Siena from above
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DUOMO DI SIENA

The gothic dome of Siena was constructed between 1259 - 1260. After this another extension was planned to almost double the size of the Cathedral. In 1348, construction to the cathedral was halted due to the Black Death. The work was never resumed. Today the uncompleted outer walls of the extension can still be seen south of the cathedral. The floor of the new planned nave is now a parking lot and a museum.

Uncompleted walls of the cathedral's extension
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The Cathedral
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Next Stop: More Medieval madness, towers and gelato in San Gimignano

Aerial view of the Piazza and Siena
Credits to: Touropia. They listed the Piazza as the 3rd greatest square in the world.
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Posted by Anja Fourie 01:39 Archived in Italy Tagged italy towers old horse medieval siena james_bond palio quantum_of_solace Comments (1)

Isla de Capri

"There was a magical timelessness to Capri. A special atmosphere, and a sense of history." ~ Kitty Pilgrim

overcast 11 °C
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Capri is the summer destination of the rich and famous of Italian society, with celebrities such as Sophia Loren and Giorgio Armani all flocking here during the warmer months. Benito Mussolini also had a house here during his tyrannical reign of Italy. It is currently standing empty and proves to be a hard sell.

To get to the island, take a ferry from Sorrento's harbour. It only takes about 25 minutes. The island is quite small, only about 10km, but the beautiful blue water and small town atmosphere truly makes for a relaxing afternoon.

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The ferry from Sorrento takes you to Marina Grande. This is the main harbour of Capri, as the name suggests. Taking a boat ride around the island will show you the sights, such as Marina Piccola, the Blue Grotto and the Love Rock. Marina Piccolo is where all the celebrities have houses and you can see mansions blending into the cliff side. The Blue Grotto (Grotta Azzura), is only accessible during low tide. The sunlight and seawater work together in this cave to create an luminous blue cave roof. As we were there during high tide, we could unfortunately not enter.

SIGHTS AROUND THE ISLAND

Punta Carena Lighthouse
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The bluest blue water of Capri
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Marina Piccola
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The Love Rock: It is said that when the boat passes underneath the Love Rock that couples must kiss and this will ensure that they will stay together forever.
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PIAZZA UMBERTO I

Capri's most famous square is the Piazza Umberto I, more famously known as Piazetta. The islanders call it Piazza. From Marina Grande, the funicular takes passengers to the Piazetta. It takes approximately 3 minutes with the funicular, 20 minutes by bus and 40 minutes by foot, to reach the top. From above you can see the whole harbour and town.

The funicular and the piazza at the top
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The view from above
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Posted by Anja Fourie 11:50 Archived in Italy Tagged water boat travel italy island amalfi capri Comments (0)

Positano

"Positano bites deep." ~ John Steinbeck

overcast 14 °C
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Where did we stay? Hotel del Mare Sorrento

The little town of Positano is built on a mountainside of the Amalfi Coast. This popular tourist town has steep little streets all the way down the beach. All the houses are built in the enclave here. There are car parks at the top of the hill as this small town simply does not accommodate anything bigger than a motorcycle or bicycle.

"Positano is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Its houses climb a hill so steep it would be a cliff except that stairs are cut in it. I believe that whereas most house foundations are vertical, in Positano they are horizontal. The small curving bay of unbelievably blue and green water lips gently on a beach of small pebbles. There is only one narrow street and it does not come down to the water. Everything else is stairs, some of them as steep as ladders. You do not walk to visit a friend, you either climb or slide." - John Steinbeck (Harper's Bazaar, 1953).

Narrow Streets of Positano
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Under the Tuscan Sun

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Positano is made popular by movies such as Under the Tuscan Sun. The lead character, Frances, walks on the beach and explores the streets of Positano. She also meets Marcello here.

You can see the cliffside houses of Positano in the background. This is one of the most popular movie locations for Positano. If you are a fan of the movie, explore Positano and take a photo at the railing where Frances is standing at. It also gives great views of the surrounding area and the beach below.

In the movie, Marcello also introduces Frances to Limoncello. This is a Lemon liquer that Positano is very popular for. Families and restaurants usually make their own Limconello. Limoncello is traditionally served chilled as a type of after dinner digestive. Positano shops are lined with lemon souveniers and bottles and bottles of limoncello. It is made from the zest of lemons steeped in alcohol. If you are trying to imagine the taste, to me it tastes similar to a chilled and alcoholic MedLemon. The limoncello will be served mostly in restaurants as a complimentary drink after dinner, as digestif.

Do yourself a favour and buy a few bottles of these. They are fairly inexpensive here and the towns along the Amalfi Coast are definitely known for making great Limoncello.

When life hands you lemons, make limoncello
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Drinking Wine at Positano Beach
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The Beach Cliffsides of Positano
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Mount Vesuvius spotted on the road out of Positano
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Goodbye Positano - Amalfi Coast Sunset
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Posted by Anja Fourie 03:42 Archived in Italy Tagged beach italy amalfi positano lemons limoncello under_the_tuscan_sun Comments (1)

Rome, The Eternal City

"Rome is the city of echoes, the city of illusions, and the city of yearning." ~ Giotto di Bondone

rain 16 °C
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Where did we stay? Hotel Giotto

Read about my previous visit to Rome here: When in Rome....

The rolling hills and the beautiful villas of the Italian countryside pave the way towards Rome. Centuries ago the views on the road towards the Eternal City wouldn't have looked that much different than the one we are seeing now. The great Roman capital, seen as the Capital of the World in ancient Roman culture, has a history dating back to over 2,500 years and is seen by many as frozen in time.

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The best way to see Rome? Buy a ticket to one of the many Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus Companies. Rome is a big city and these buses stop at all the major sightseeing destinations which makes it really easy to navigate Rome.

We explored Rome by bus as well as by foot.
Here are some of the famous sights of Rome that we saw:

THE TREVI FOUNTAIN

"In Rome, I particularly love the history, churches, sculptures and architecture and the fact that you can walk along a tiny cobbled street and turn the corner to find the Trevi Fountain." ~ Philip Treacy

The Trevi Fountain is truly hidden between buildings and along narrow, cobbled streets. The one moment you are walking along rows of restaurants and shops and the next the narrow street suddenly opens up into the big square hosting the Trevi Fountain. The marble sculptures are beautifully white even in the dreary, rainy Rome. During this visit, the Trevi Fountain was under construction and all the water was emptied, but it gave us a unique close up of the fountain. A ramp was built across the fountain and you could truly see the sculptures up close.

Throw a coin with your right hand over your left shoulder. If you do this, legend says that you will return to Rome. This may just be a legend, but for me it came true as I have returned to Rome. The fountain is emptied every night and the money is used for charity.

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THE COLOSSEUM

"Rome will exist as long as the Colosseum does; when the Colosseum falls, so will Rome; when Rome falls, so will the world." - Venerable Bede

The largest amphitheatre ever built and 2000 years old, the Colosseum is seen as the iconic symbol of Rome. On the first Sunday of the month, entry into the Colosseum is free. You can also stand in the queue to buy a ticket to enter the Colosseum. If you do not want to wait in line, there are plenty of people selling tickets to group tours. The Colosseum is located just off the Roman Forum. The Arch of Constantine is also located here. It marks the victory of Constantine over Maxentius.

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THE PANTHEON

The Pantheon is one of the best preserved ancient buildings of Rome and still remains the world's largest unreinforced concrete dome. It is the best preserved of all the ancient Roman buildings, as it is the only building that has been in continuous use over its history. It used to be a temple and today it is used as a Catholic Church.
The first king of the Kingdom of Italy, Victor Emmanual II, is buried here. The Il Vittoriano was built in his honour.
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IL VITTORIANO

Built in honour of the first king of the unified Italy, this monument is jokingly called the "Wedding Cake" by locals. It has been controversial since its beginning as a large part of medieval Rome was destroyed for it to be built. The glaring white marble on the exterior makes it stand out, and not in a good way, compared to all the other buildings with their brownish colour.
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SPANISH STEPS

Also under construction on our visit here, the Spanish steps is a popular place for tourists to sit on and relax. Eating on any of the 135 steps is unfortunately illegal, as the state would like to keep the steps clean. The Spanish steps leads up from the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinita dei Monti Church at the top. The steps got their name from the Spanish Embassy which was hosted in the piazza at the base, but it should actually be named the French Steps. The building was funded by French diplomats in 1723, and the church at the top as well as the surrounding area is the responsibility of the French state. The steps also contan the French Fleur symbol.
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LARGO DI TORRE ARGENTINA

This ancient square in Rome hosts four ancient Roman temples as well as the remains of Pompey's Theatre.

Julius Caesar's Assassination
It is right in the middle of Pompey's theatre where it is believed Julies Caesar was assasinated. Compare the remains of the theatre and the columns still standing on the left, to this depiction of the assassination by artist Jean-Leon Gerome. It is not very hard to imagine Caesar being stabbed right here on the steps of the theatre.

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Roman Cats
According to legend, Caesar brought cats to Rome from Egypt. On this spot where he met his final demise, the stray cats of Rome live. The Torre Argentina Cat Sanctuary is right opposite the square. They care for all the stray cats here and run a neuter programme. You can visit the cat shop for some goodies or make a donation.
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PIAZZA DEL POPOLO

The Piazza del Popolo is a large square in Rome. The name translates to the "People's Square". There are street musicians performing here and the square is wide and open. To get here you can follow the Via Del Corso, the central road of Rome, all the way to the end. Before the age of railroads, this square was the traveller's first view of Rome. Public executions also took place in this square until 1826.

A view of Rome
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The best part of the square is that you can access the Pincio. As you enter the square from the Via Del Corso, you will see an outlook to the right of the square. Follow the path up to the Pincio for great views of Rome as well as the dome of the Vatican in the distance.

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TOP TIPS:

1. DO GET A MAP: Rome is a really easy city to navigate if you have a map.
2. DO ASK ABOUT THE SEATING FEE: As everywhere in Italy, some restaurants charge a seating fee to simply sit at a table and drink a glass of wine. That glass of wine can become expensive very quickly.
3. DO GET A TICKET TO A HOP-ON HOP-OFF BUS: In a big city like Rome, the ticket for this type of bus is definitely well worth the money.
4. DO BEWARE OF PICK POCKETS: A very busy city and notorious for pick pockets. Hold your bag close to you.
5. DO VISIT THE POPOLO: The view from above here will give you stunning views of the city.

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Posted by Anja Fourie 02:09 Archived in Italy Tagged italy cats rome colosseum trevi caesar assassination popolo Comments (1)

Venezia, The Floating City

"If you read a lot, nothing is ever as good as you imagined. Venice is -- Venice is better." ~ Fran Lebowitz

overcast 20 °C
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Where did we stay? Hotel Venezia

The City of Water is old and beautiful. Walking down the narrow alleys and over the hundreds of bridges, 400 bridges to be precise, the magical feeling of Venice is lost to none. Once known as the Republic of Venice, the city is now part of Italy. The rich history of Venice can be felt everywhere, and the charm of this beautiful city takes your breathe away.

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We stayed on the mainland of Venice, known as Mestre. In the past, the islands of Venice was only accessible by boat. Today, a 4km bus connects the mainland with Venice. As no cars are allowed inside Venice, all busses, trains and cars park in a big parking lot after they cross the bridge and everyone walks from there. In Venice everyone walks everywhere and walking is definitely the best way to explore this collection of 118 little islands.

Street names with Venetian corrections
Venetians have their own dialect, which is different from the Italian spoken in the rest of Italy. Venetians also used to know their way around the city without needing any street signs. Street signs have been put up by the Italian government. These do not use the Venetian dialect of not using double letters in their spelling and the Venetians have rebelled by painting over the letters on most of the signs in the city.
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Signs directing you to the main areas in Venice
During the day, tourists and the general population crowd the streets. During the night, Venice gets quiet. The streets are less crowded and the narrow alleyways, some requiring single file are easier to navigate. Getting lost in Venice is the best way to explore the city, but luckily you are never really lost as there are signs everywhere pointing you towards the three main areas.
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These main areas are: Piazzale Roma, Rialto and San Marco.

PIAZZALE ROMA

This is the square right at the entrance of Venice and no vehicles are allowed past this point. There are many shops here where you can buy souveniers. If you are in Venice and you want to get back to the main square or the entrance bridge, just follow the signs to Piazzale Roma.

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Alleys of Venice
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RIALTO

Exploring Venice, you will eventually come across the Grand Canal. You will recognise the canal immediately. It is the widest canal in Venice as well as the busiests canal. There are many vaporetti's (water buses), as well as gondolas and water taxis on this canal. The Rialto bridge connects the markets, which is the economic side of of Venice, to San Marco, the political side of Venice. The shops on this bridge were put here to pay for the construction of the bridge. The market was one of the busiest areas of Venice and one of the big gathering points of Venice.

"What news on the Rialto?" - Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare)

The Grand Canal
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Rialto Bridge
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The Grand Canal at Night
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SAN MARCO

After you cross the Rialto Bridge, follow the signs and you will eventually get to San Marco's Square. San Marco hosts many of Venice's famous sights such as the the Doge's Palace, the Basilica as well as the Bell Tower. These are not political buildings anymore, but are now public buildings and museums. This square is also featured in several video games such as Tekken and Assassins Creed.

San Marco Square
The San Marco square is famous for its flooding. The holes which were designed to collect rainwater is also what floods the square. Podiums are built across the square for people to walk on. Venice sinks by 12cm a year. Venice has started building layers on top of their current floors to counteract the sinking. As a result of this, the pillars on the Doge's Palace is now much shorter than it was when the palace was built. Many lower floors of buildings are now also boarded up and unused as a result of the rising water.
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Campanile di San Marco (The Campanile / Bell Tower of San Marco)
A must see in the San Marco square is the Bell Tower. For 8€, you take a lift up to the top of the tower and from here you will see a 360° view of Venice. Standing in the queue to go up the tower is well worth the wait. The views from above are beautiful and you definitely get a sense of the many canals and alleys of Venice.

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San Giorgio Island from the Bell Tower
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Gondola Ride
From San Marco, you can take a gondola ride through Venice. The ride will be approximately 30 minutes long and will take you through the small canals of Venice. You will see places only accessible by boat and experience the quiet, peaceful areas of Venice. A gondola ride will be 80€ and can take up to 6 people. Look for any of the areas where people are getting onto gondolas and wait in line.

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TOP TIPS:

1. DO GET LOST: There is no better way to explore Venice than getting lost in the narrow alleys and streets. Just follow the signs to the main areas if you feel lost.
2. DO ASK ABOUT THE SEATING FEE: As everywhere in Italy, some restaurants charge a seating fee to simply sit at a table and drink a glass of wine. That glass of wine can become expensive very quickly, especially if you are at a popular restaurant with a nice view.
3. DO GO UP HIGH: The best view of Venice is from the Bell Tower. Standing in the queue will ensure you a 360 degree view.
4. DO TAKE A MOMENT TO TAKE IT ALL IN: Buy a bottle of wine and some plastic cups and sit next to the canal. Take in the people, the gondolas, the water, the movement of Venice.

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Posted by Anja Fourie 10:03 Archived in Italy Tagged water venice tower italy rialto san_marco mestre grand_canal san_polo Comments (3)

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