Animals and art: exploring Siena with kids
The porcupine is the sworn enemy of the wolf. Meanwhile the snails and tortoises don’t see eye to eye. But happily the caterpillars and giraffes officially stopped their fighting back in 1996…
Stepping into Siena’s twisting medieval streets feels like a fairytale at any age, but discovering the stories of the city’s 17 different areas – or contrada – and their symbolic animals makes it a fascinating place to discover with kids.
It might be smaller than neighbouring Florence – though ancient rivalry continues there with the Sienese convinced of their own city’s superiority – but that makes it less overwhelming to wander around too.
You need sharp eyes though, or a good guide. Happily Margarita, our guide from Arianna & Friends, was there to lead us through the maze of alleyways and point out statues whose outstretched arms would guide us back afterwards, so we didn’t miss a detail.
On this trip, I was wandering child-free – along with 12 other family travel bloggers on a trip courtesy of Bookings For You, staying in the Tuscan countryside at villa Country Relais & Spa Le Capanne. But I know my five-year-old would have both the sharp eyes to spot the symbols dotted around, and plenty of enthusiasm for an animal-themed treasure hunt.
At its height in around 1300, Siena was home to 50,000 inhabitants, with a network of aqueducts transporting water to the city, before the population was ravaged by the Black Death. The 17 districts date back to those times, organised for the city’s defence – although these days, the ancient rivalries are only really remembered during the famous Palio horse race.
High on the walls you’ll spot the emblems, each with their own colours as well as a different animal or symbol: the caterpillars mark the area where silk was made, the eagles represented the lawyers, the porcupines symbolised the district where arms were produced.
The dragons, meanwhile, were the emblem of the bankers and you can still see the world’s oldest bank here, the Monte dei Paschi di Siena which dates back to 1472.
For centuries, the city’s importance meant it lay on a major pilgrim route, the Via Francigena, which led from Canterbury to Rome – and our own tour started at one key stop, the The Basilica of San Domenico, also known as Basilica Cateriniana. Less decorative than the spectacular Duomo 10 minutes away, it’s still the final resting place of Siena’s most famous saint, Catherine. Or of part of her, at least.
Born in the city in the 14th century, the youngest of 24 children, she defied convention to live as a Dominican nun, drawing pilgrims (and providing an impressive source of income for her order) as well as dictating the story of her visions – plus a little light involvement in politics on the side, persuading the pope living at Avignon to return to Rome.
While the medieval mindset seems very far from ours, it’s a fascinating tale of a woman at a time when most had no power, one who went on to be one of the patron saints of Italy and Europe. After dying in Rome, Siena was reluctant to relinquish its famous daughter, so two of her relics still remain in the basilica – her head (hidden behind a mask) and her finger.
I couldn’t decide whether my daughter would find it entirely gruesome or be ghoulishly intrigued.
Walking through the city, past the Piazza del Campo, past medieval toilets suspended from the side of houses, we spotted yet more animals on our way to the Duomo. Perched on top of columns were wolves suckling a baby or babies, another legend to discover on our way.
While the story of Romulus and Remus is familiar to anyone who has visited Rome, the twins fed by a she-wolf before growing up to found the Eternal City, I had never heard the next part of the tale; Remus had two sons himself, who fled after their own father’s death at their uncle’s hands and were also fed by a wolf, before going on to found Siena.
Another part of the legend tells that they rode to Siena on one white and one black horse, still the city’s colours today (how they did that while still being young enough to be fed by a wolf I’m not sure, but let’s not nitpick a good myth).
You’ll see the contrast on flags and shields, and most striking of all, on the cathedral’s belltower (even if it’s actually dark green rather than black) and inside on the columns of the Duomo. After a cloudy start to our visit, the sun came out as we reached the cathedral, lighting the pinks and whites of the marble, gold glinting.
If the outside seems impressive, that’s nothing to the inside though. The floor is covered in tales from the Bible intricately carved in marble – most stay protected and hidden throughout the year, except for a couple of months after the Palio when they’re uncovered.
But even if you can’t see those, there’s the gilded side chapel with the bluest star-painted circle at the heart of its golden dome, decorative candles with those animal symbols again, and the spectacular Piccolomini library dedicated to 15th century Pope Pius II (built by his nephew, who went on to become Pius III).
The paintings of the walls tell tales of his life, but it’s the ceiling which your eyes are drawn to as your jaw drops. Colours so bright they almost outshine the gold – I could have stared for hours.
And if you are with smaller travellers with shorter attention spans, there’s one last item to spot on this treasure hunt – dotted around the room, you can spy the symbol of the Piccolomini family, the crescent moon.
As we weaved back down Siena’s steep hills, past shops displaying scoops of gelato and piles of panforte, I had just one question left. Which would win, in a fight between a porcupine and a wolf?
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Disclosure: My stay in Tuscany was free for the purposes of review. I paid for my share of the guided tour. All opinions and deliberations about battling porcupines are my own.
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