[ 3 DAYS IN ... ]

The Leaning Tower of Pisa is no longer in danger of falling over and has become so stable it is once again open to the public.

Towering Beauty

Siena in Italy’s Tuscan region
offers its visitors cathedrals and
streets out of the Middle Ages

Whether under the Tuscan sun or sheltered in the cool shade of an ancient alley, you will find great beauty in this land of rolling hills and ancient history. Tuscany is a vast region of olive groves, vineyards, little villages, coastal resorts and the three major cities of Florence, Siena and Pisa. One could spend a lifetime here, but if you are just passing through for a few days, it is still possible to absorb Tuscan pleasures. The capital of Florence is worthy of a dedicated three-day visit, as we have presented in an earlier article, so here we will have a look at some of Tuscany's other main attractions.

Siena makes an excellent home base for exploring Tuscany, for it is the largest of the hill towns and offers many shops, restaurants, walking routes and fine hotels. It is an exquisite town comprising ancient brick buildings that appear to grow organically out of the ground. The two dominant colors are earth tones of dark yellow and burnt sienna, a reddish-brown hue named for this very place. From Siena you can quickly travel to other major Tuscan destinations like San Gimignano, Pisa and Lucca by train, car or by organized tour.

Traveling from one town to another, you will see a lush patchwork of green hills dotted with cypress trees. Some of the world's great wines come from the region, including Chianti and the more elegant Brunello, especially from Montalcino, which produces the best of all Italian wine. Olive oil is another main product, with cheeses and steak also ranking high in the food chain. Some of the world's best cooking can be savored in Tuscany.


Tuscany and Siena

Day 1 Siena's main piazza, cathedral, museums and shopping streets

Day 2 San Gimignano, Tuscan countryside and Siena's back alleys

Day 3 Excursion to Pisa, at left, and Lucca


Day One Siena's main piazza, cathedral, museums and shopping streets

Siena is a very livable city, built to a human scale covering one square mile. You can easily walk from one end of town to the other, with an endless variety of sights along the way, including the typical European mix of homes, shops and businesses in the same block. Life is concentrated but peaceful: Cars and even bicycles are not allowed in the historic center.

There is a dense concentration of old brick houses built on top of each other, covering several hills. A major reason for this tight squeeze was the frequent warfare of the Middle Ages with attacks that might come from Florence, Pisa or Genoa, or perhaps within the city itself. This threat forced towns or competing factions to protect themselves by building walls around tight clusters of homes, creating virtual fortresses. They occupied all the precious space that they could inside the walls, and over time grew into compact towns.

Siena had a population of 50,000 people in the 13th century, making it one of medieval Europe's major cities, the same size as Paris or Florence, and bigger than London. This gives you a quick hint of the importance of Siena at that time and why it is worth visiting today. The population declined later as Siena slipped out of the mainstream of Italian history -- which left its precious old buildings undisturbed, preserving for us a vast, living museum. Only recently has the town's population grown back to its earlier size, with a healthy economy and the nation's fifth most expensive cost of living.

The two main attractions you will want to begin with are the main square, a semi-circular piazza called Il Campo, and the nearby cathedral.

Siena is loaded with small lanes and alleys for pedestrians only, with no cars or scooters allowed.

Main piazza and Palazzo Pubblico: The main public square in the heart of Siena is Piazza del Campo, nearly 500 feet wide, and surrounded by shops, restaurants and the towering Palazzo Pubblico, the city hall. Like most of the rest of town, the surface is slanted along the slope of a hill, adding an unusual dimension to this gathering place.

Twice a year the Campo becomes an arena for a wild, bareback horse race called the Palio, with 30,000 screaming spectators crammed into the center and 20,000 more fans standing outside and looking down from the windows and balconies. These festivities every July 2 and Aug. 16 have been going on for the past 800 years but might have deeper roots in ancient Roman rituals. Days of festive celebrations lead up to the 90-second race, with music, ceremonies and parades of locals dressed in Renaissance costumes, carrying colorful banners representing Siena's 17 "contrade" or neighborhoods defined during the Middle Ages.

The rest of the year, "Il Campo" is much more peaceful. The space is so large that it never seems to get crowded, no matter how many people are buzzing around looking for souvenirs or a good meal. After the narrow confines of the rest of town, you are surprised to enter into this grand open area. The Campo dates to the 13th century, when large piazzas were unheard of because governments feared giving people a large gathering place for political protests and possibly revolution -- so of course, many such protests did take place here in front of the city hall, over the centuries.

The piazza symbolizes the government. One message the leaders proclaimed with this large square was they would rule the city properly and were therefore not worried about revolution. Nine lines in the piazza divide the space into sections that represented the governing Council of Nine, which some today feel was the best government they ever had. Nine merchants and bankers ruled, desiring to make themselves and everyone else rich, with all welcome to participate. The Council of Nine presented a new kind of democratic message for the Middle Ages, and it worked so well that Siena became one of Europe's richest cities.

Construction of Palazzo Pubblico began in the late 13th century in classic Sienese Gothic style, built of stone on the bottom level and brick on the upper floors, with crenellations, turrets and the tall tower giving it the appearance of a fortified castle. Parts of the large structure still function as the city hall, while other sections such as the Civic Museum are open to the public and are well worth the $7 entry fee. For a quick glimpse, you are free to walk into the inner courtyard, surrounded by an impressive arcade with colorful coats of arms and offering a dramatic view of the tower.

It is a grand experience to visit the inside of this ancient structure with its original architecture and many fine exhibits, including a profound painting, "Allegory of Good and Bad Government." This fresco documents the virtues and vices of medieval Siena and provides one of our most accurate views of daily life six centuries ago.

Eleven rooms in the Palazzo are open to the public with more paintings, sculpture, furnishings and decorative pieces dating to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The Virgin Mary in Majesty is an important fresco by Simone Martini, one of Siena's great artists from the 14th century, who painted in a Gothic style so flowing and colorful that it foreshadows the Renaissance. For a panoramic view across the city you can climb the 332 steps of the Torre del Mangia tower, the second tallest medieval structure ever built in Italy.

The Piazza del Campo is the main public square of Siena, a large open space fronting on the City Hall and surrounded by restaurants and shops.

Shopping: Leave the piazza through any exit along the curved edge to enter the main shopping street of town, which circles the Campo. This busy pedestrian lane changes name from Via di Citta on the west side to Via Banchi di Sotto on the east. The other main street, Via Banchi di Sopra, branches where the other two meet, forming a busy pedestrian intersection. These three are the widest of the pedestrian lanes in the historic center and have shops and restaurants throughout. Escape the crowds by ducking into side alleys, described in detail for your second day's itinerary.

At the far end of Via Banchi di Sotto you will find the Siena University, one of the first in Europe when it was established in 1240. Across from it is the large Palazzo Piccolomini with its impressive white travertine façade in the Florentine style, now housing the city archives.

Toward the far end of Via Banchi di Soppra you will find a square, Piazza Salimbeni, surrounded by three palaces in different styles from the 14th and 15th centuries. They house Europe's oldest bank, Monte dei Paschi, founded in 1472.

The shopping lanes are worth walking from end to end and back again, which can be done in one or two hours. Late afternoon is always the ideal time for a stroll in any Italian town, with the locals out in force enjoying their "passagiatta" promenade.

The Baptistery is underneath the Duomo's nave and is worth finding to see the beautiful baptismal font, created during the 15th century.

Duomo Cathedral: Three blocks west of the Campo and atop one of the town's three hills stands the great cathedral of Siena, the Duomo, one of the world's most beautiful churches.

It took 200 years to build the Duomo, starting at about the same time as Notre Dame of Paris in the mid-12th century, and spending many more years to decorate the edifice. The most famous artists worked on the cathedral: Pisano, Michelangelo, Pinturicchio, Donatello and Bernini.

The Duomo is built primarily in the Gothic style, which is rarely seen elsewhere in Italy. Siena is considered the City of the Gothic, with its most famous art works and economic peak dating to that time. Romanesque and Byzantine styles also are part of this complicated structure, which is symbolic of the important role of Siena in medieval commerce: The merchants were trading with northern Europe as well as the Near East. The main street of Siena -- today a quiet pedestrian lane -- was a major artery in the global trade network.

More than just a religious structure, the Duomo is a symbol of wealth, international trade and cultural influences -- the only building in town constructed entirely of marble. The Sienese had hoped to expand it into the world's largest church during the Middle Ages, but the Black Death wiped out most of the population in 1348 and the ambitious work was halted.

Entering the cathedral, you will be overwhelmed by its size and striking design of black and white horizontal stripes throughout the columns and walls. Round arches of the Romanesque stand near pointed arches of the Gothic, continuing the mix of styles.

The remarkable floor contains 56 large marble mosaics considered by many to be the building's masterpiece. Bold three-dimensional, geometric designs frame the pictures and extend throughout the floor. The experience is of walking on a marble carpet picture gallery, but the unwary could easily overlook these mosaics while gazing at the Duomo's many other attractive features.

You cannot miss the huge dome that soars overhead. This is a mysterious feature, for experts are not quite sure when it was built and it is not what it seems to be. The dome may have been part of an older church and certainly was created before the larger, famous dome of the Florence cathedral, but records of the Duomo's construction have been lost. The dome appears to be coffered with square recesses, but this is an optical trick painted on in the 16th century. Slightly asymmetric, the blue dome with golden stars is a stunning sight representing the Kingdom of Heaven.

Another masterpiece is the elaborately carved 13th-century pulpit by Nicola and Giovanni Pisano, a father-and-son team considered to be the most important Gothic sculptors in Europe. Their animated styles paved the way for the Renaissance. The artists carved many great works, but their most important are this pulpit and the one in Pisa. As a platform for preaching, the pulpit was a focal point for the congregations, and this one rises to the occasion with many elaborate scenes from the life of Christ. The Baptistery, underneath the nave, has another important carved structure, the baptismal font, created in the 15th century.

Statues outside the church liven up the piazza in Pisa.

Rome's greatest Baroque sculptor, Bernini, also is represented in a side chapel he designed containing two of his statues of saints -- Jerome and Mary Magdalene. It is rare to find his works outside of Rome, so this is a special treat. Michelangelo, a native of Tuscany, has a marble statue of St. Paul here, which although not one of his best is noteworthy because it was to be part of a series of 15 statues he was paid for but never finished, sparking a lawsuit that dogged him for much of his life.

For this traveler, the most delightful Duomo surprise is its series of colorful frescoes painted by Pinturicchio from 1502 to 1509 on the walls of a side room, depicting scenes from Pope Pius II's life. This Piccolomini Library is named for a noble family who produced two popes and many other important officials.

The viewing experience is astonishing because you are completely surrounded by the painting, totally immersed inside it rather than just looking at it. The walls are filled with deep perspectives showing vast landscapes and elaborate architecture that frames detailed scenes of religious celebrations. Most visitors are unaware of this hidden treasure, but it is well worth the small admission fee to go inside.

Cathedral Museum: Just behind the cathedral you will find a small museum, Museo dell'Opera Metropolitana, exhibiting mostly Gothic art. The first gallery contains sculptures by Giovanni Pisano that were intended for the church façade, and various paintings. One panel makes the visit worthwhile -- the masterpiece by Duccio called "Maesta" which depicts the Virgin on one side and 26 scenes from Christ's life on the other.

Another art museum a few blocks south, the Pinacoteca, has a fine collection of paintings showing the evolution of the Sienese School from the Gothic through the Renaissance. The 18 galleries display local artists, so this is an opportunity for new discoveries.

By this time you have seen the major sights of town and are probably feeling ready for a rest, followed by dinner and an evening stroll.


Day Two San Gimignano, Tuscan countryside and Siena's back alleys

Get out of Siena to explore the quaint hill towns of Tuscany and see the countryside scattered with vineyards, olive groves, farms, forests and pastures. There are two different ways to do this: Join a tour (see listings), or go on your own with a rented car or public transportation.

Check with your hotel and the tourist information office in the Campo for tour operator leads. If you join a tour, further travel tips are not needed, so this section is for those going it on their own or deciding which tours to join.

San Gimignano: One of the most picturesque Tuscan towns, San Gimignano -- famous for its 14 medieval "skyscraper" towers -- is accessible via public transportation. It has been described as a small, medieval Manhattan. There is direct bus service, or take the train from Siena 30 minutes to the town of Poggibonsi, then catch a local bus for a 20-minute ride to San Gimignano.

The earlier you can arrive the better, because this little village gets crowded with tourists. You might also consider spending the second night in one of San Gimignano's small hotels, and then continue north to Lucca for your third night.

The rolling hillsides and little hill-top villages provide some of Tuscany's most charming sights.

San Gimignano is a classic Tuscan hill town, with the original wall still standing all the way around and five gateways that lead you into the historic center. You can see the town in several hours, for it is only 800 yards long and 400 wide, but cradled within this maze of alleys is a history that goes back 10 centuries.

From the piazza in front of the church at the center of town you can see seven towers, including the oldest one at the Palazzo Vecchio dating to 1239, and the tallest tower, reaching 176 feet above the Palazzo del Popolo, a worthwhile art museum containing work by Pinturicchio, Lippi and Bartolo. Climb the tallest tower for a spectacular view of the others.

San Gimignano's main attraction is the town itself, with winding little alleys, ancient homes, terraced gardens and those amazing skyscraper towers. Be sure to walk along Via San Matteo, a steep lane with shops geared more for locals than tourists. It leads towards Sant' Agostino, another 13th century fresco-filled church with a huge marble altar and graceful little cloister. Another fine street is Via San Giovani that leads from the central Piazza della Cisterna south to an impressive fortified gate through the defensive wall.

In its 13th and early 14th century heyday, it is believed there may have been as many as 72 towers in San Gimignano. These medieval skyscrapers were family status symbols and also served as a place of refuge during disputes with neighbors. The town was also subject to attacks from the larger forces of Pisa, Arezzo and Siena. An alliance with Florence in 1353 helped protect the town and is one reason why these towers have survived.

If you head back to Siena, take several hours to explore its back alleys. To help navigate through these winding pedestrian lanes, get a good map and study the brochures provided by the tourist office, available as downloads from

Start with Via della Galluzza in the center of Siena, one of the most picturesque lanes due to eight arches that cross it and the network of narrow alleys that connect it with two parallel streets called Terme and Termini. Small piazzas, like Indipendenza and Matteotti, provide some open relief from the narrow canyons. Continue to the massive 16th-century Santa Barbara fortress constructed by the Medici, which is now a pretty park with a wine bar in the basement, the Enoteca Italica Permanente, offering Italy's best vintages by the glass for reasonable prices.

Walk back toward the center via the Basilica di San Domenico to pay your respects to St. Catherine of Siena, Italy's patron saint, who convinced the pope to return from Avignon to Italy in 1377. Her diplomatic efforts helped save the church from splintering into four branches. St. Catherine's birthplace, one block over, has been turned into a sanctuary.

Continue six blocks to the town's eastern edge to the Church of San Francesco, on top of one of Siena's three hills. In front of the church you will find a network of a dozen little lanes which are some of the most picturesque in town, and far enough from the tourist center to offer more of an authentic local feeling. Look on your map for streets named Comune, Mezzo, Orti, Orbachi, Vallerozzi, Scotte and Lavatoio, some of which are tiny, dead-end alleys worth a probe.

Travelers who love to get away from the shops may have a look into the peaceful neighborhood behind the Campo along Via di Pantaneto, which extends from the busy street of Banchi di Sotto. Between here and Via Salicotto you will notice a network of parallel lanes, some connected by staircases, that wind through part of the old Jewish ghetto.

You could walk for miles in Siena's winding little lanes, yet never stray more than a few hundred yards from the Campo.


Day Three Excursion to Pisa and Lucca

Having seen most of what Siena has to offer, this is a good day to venture north to Pisa and Lucca. It is a little tricky to get there by train, but can be done. If you don't mind driving, you might be better off renting a car, which offers more flexibility and would enable you to visit more tiny hamlets along the way. You could do this as a day-trip, but probably will find it more comfortable to check out of your Siena hotel and move to Lucca, one of Tuscany's most attractive small towns. Pisa is your first goal, and can be reached by train from Siena in a couple of hours, with one change of train along the way in Empoli. If you have luggage, it can be left at the Pisa train station while you hop on the city bus and visit the sights.

Pisa: The Leaning Tower has been fixed: It is no longer in danger of falling over and you can now walk to the top. The entrance fee is $18 and there is usually a long wait in line. But if you plan ahead, reservations can be made over the Internet at least 16 days in advance at

Of course, the tower was only straightened by a few inches to stabilize the structure, because if it wasn't leaning, tourism would collapse. But while this is the main attraction, the cathedral and baptistery are also worth a look. All three sites are located on a large grass field called the Square of Miracles.

To get your best view and photos of the tower, walk behind the cathedral to the far back of the piazza where you can shoot the standard pose with hands reaching into the air holding up the tower. Another nice viewpoint is through the Porta Santa Maria, the gateway that leads from the main road and bus stop.

The Duomo is one of the most important and beautiful Italian churches ever built in the Romanesque style, predating the Gothic. It was begun in 1063 and finished about a century later, with further decorations added throughout the following centuries. It is a huge building, 100 yards long, with a large nave flanked by two aisles on each side, and 68 massive, monolith columns that surround the central space.

There is one special masterpiece to admire: The pulpit carved by Giovanni Pisano, featuring dozens of marble statues representing the cardinal virtues and scenes from the Bible. Created at the beginning of the 14th century, this is generally considered Italy's most beautiful pulpit, even surpassing Pisano's own great work in the Siena Cathedral. Pisa's Baptistery is also worth visiting, containing more sculpture by Giovanni Pisano and another attractive pulpit by his father, Nicola. The acoustics in here are so amazing that an attendant demonstrates them every 10 minutes.

Many souvenir shops run along one side of the piazza, each selling pretty much the same stuff, and there are lots of tourist restaurants along Via Santa Maria, the main road leading from the tower. Service can be very slow and the food mediocre, so you might be better off just grabbing a sandwich from a sidewalk stand or snack bar, saving time and appetite for a great dinner in Lucca. Return to the Pisa train station by taxi or city bus to continue your journey to Lucca.

Sunflowers are one of the most colorful crops grown in Tuscany.

Lucca: This historic town is another one of Tuscany's little jewels. It became a colony of the ancient Romans who created a grid of streets that today forms a network of quiet lanes. This is a classic fortified town, with a large perimeter wall protecting the Gothic and Renaissance architecture of the historic center. A pretty park runs along the outside of the wall, forming a popular rampart path. The Old Town is a mile long by a half-mile wide, making it ideal for exploring; you cannot get lost.

To make navigation even easier, the most historic section is concentrated into a small central zone just five blocks wide between the cathedral and Piazza San Michelle. The main shopping street, Via Fillungo, runs through the heart of this pedestrian district, with several lanes branching off. This street grid is opened by many little piazzas scattered throughout the Old Town, including an unusual oval-shaped Piazza dell'Anfiteatro built along the original lines of an ancient Roman amphitheater.

The most spectacular of all Lucca's medieval buildings is the great cathedral, Duomo San Martino, begun in the 11th century and completed during a 400-year period, and resulting in a wonderful mix of Byzantine, Gothic and Renaissance styles. Once again, carvings by Nicola Pisano are a major attraction, along with a life-like tomb sculpted by Jacopo della Quercia, another of Tuscany's most important artists. The altar painting is by Ghirlandaio, a teacher of Michelangelo.

Densely concentrated medieval buildings mixed in with Renaissance palaces, small gardens and modern shops provide an ideal setting for absorbing the best that Italy has to offer. This town is more alive with locals than with tourists, so you will experience an authentic culture that has evolved over 2,000 years in its own way, unspoiled by modernization.

Three days in Tuscany is just the tip of the iceberg. As usual in travels to fascinating places, one always wants to see much more, and if time allows, this region in the heart of Italy could keep the ambitious busy exploring for many more weeks.

Dennis Callan is the president of the Hawaii Geographic Society and produces the "World Traveler" TV series, airing 6 to 7 p.m. Mondays on 'Olelo, Oceanic 52. He frequently leads tours through Europe, Canada and the United States, and writes "Three Days in ..." the first Sunday each month explaining how to get the most out of three days in the world's great places. This is his 30th article in a continuing series, available on his Web site,


If you go ...

Places to stay, see and dine while in Siena and Tuscany:

Siena hotels

Alma Domus: 37 Via Camporeggio, call 577-44177; fax 577-47601

Cannon D'Oro: 28 Via Montanini, call 577-44321; fax 577-280868

Grand Hotel Continental: 85 Via Banchi di Sopra, call 577-56011; fax 577-5601555

La Perla: 25 Via delle Terme, call/fax 577-47144

Locanda Garibaldi: 18 Via G. Dupre, call 577-284204

Piccolo Hotel Etruria: 3 Via delle Donzelle, call 577-288088; fax 577-288461

Toscana: 8 Via Cecco Angioliere, call 577-46097; fax 577-270634

Tre Donzelle: 5 Via delle Donzelle, call 577-280358; fax 577-223933

Lucca hotels

AC Hotel Lucca: 1135 Viale Europa, call 0583-31781; fax 0583-317894;

Carignano: 3680 Via Per S. Alessio, call 583-329618; fax 0583-329848;

Celide: 25 Viale Giusti, call 0583-954106; fax 0583-954304;

Grand Hotel Guigni: 1247 Via Romana, call 0583-4991; fax 0583-499800;

La Luna: 12 Corte Compagni, call 0583-493634; fax 0583-490021;

Universo: 1 Piazza del Giglio, call 0583-493678; fax 0583-954854;

Villa la Principessa: 1616 Via SS. Del Brennero, call 0583-370037; fax 0583-379136;

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