By Hershey Neri and Joshua Young
The glory of Rome, the renaissance of Florence, the serenity of Venice. A first-time visitor to Italy would surely tick these three cities off his list, and probably tackle Pisa as well. But in the same way that Italian cuisine is more than just pizza, pasta, and gelato, Italy offers way, way more than its most touristy cities.
So aside from the main draws, what other places should you add to your itinerary? Well, that’s completely up to you—there are charming wine regions for the connoisseurs, old Roman ruins for the archaeologically inclined, and abandoned towns for the adventurers. But below, we’ve suggested two spots you can start with, both of which are conveniently located and uniquely charm. That way, when you head home, you can regale your friends with stories from a town they’ve never been to. —Josh
Siena is a rose-colored medieval town in Tuscany, just two hours away from Florence. (The reason why we “discovered” this place is because my sister Carmela of The Bellissimamma recently migrated there with her family—follow her blog to read about her adventures!)
My parents, Josh, and I fell in love with its old-city charm—in fact, the city, its culture, and its people were so lovely, Josh and I even joked about living in Siena one day! (A few weeks ago, we asked each other what our favorite Italian city was, and we answered in chorus: Siena!)
Its centre, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is where the Siena Cathedral (Duomo) lies. Step inside the 12th century masterpiece and admire its Romanesque-Gothic architecture.
You will also notice that there are plenty of She-Wolf symbols in Siena. The reason? According to legend, the town was founded by Senius and Aschius (sons of Remus), who fled Rome, taking the She-Wolf statue with them. Personally, I loved this small but important detail—not only does it give the city so much character, but I also found it very empowering for mothers, the real-life she wolves!
Walk the quiet streets of the city and you will see that each corner has different flags and colors. This is because there are 17 different contrade (small city neighborhoods) in Siena, and each has its own unique emblem. (In the Philippines, a contrada is somewhat—but not quite—similar to a baranggay). The 17 contrade are the Eagle, Snail, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Shell, Tower, Ram, Caterpillar, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine, She-Wolf, and the Goose.
The emblem of the Dragon Contrada was all over Siena because they won this year’s Palio Festival!
The different contrade of Siena
Historically, contrade were set up in the Middle Ages to supply troops to military companies who defended Siena and fought for its independence from Florence. While the different contrade have lost their military functions, they are still bound by history, pride, and patriotism. In fact, people in Siena are so proud of their contrada, that a lot of them only celebrate milestones (e.g. baptisms, marriages, death, or a win at the Palio Festival) within their own contrada. (I told my folks that one can write a really cool love story between two people from different contrade—it’s like Romeo and Juliet set in Siena! Haha!
Tip: Visit Siena during the summer, specifically between July 2 to August 16—this is when the bi-annual Palio Festival (Palio di Sienna) is held. This traditional event, which you can watch for free, is a medieval horse race around Piazza del Campo among the 17 contrade—the winning contrada will receive a palio, a painted banner with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary on it. It’s worth attending when you’re visiting Siena for the first time because you’ll learn a lot about their culture—but let us warn you, it’s not recommendable to bring small kids there because people can get pretty aggressive!
It was World Cup season when we visited Siena—but the thing was, people weren’t talking about football because Sienese were more invested in the Palio! I literally had goosebumps witnessing this medieval event. There was just so much culture to take in! We saw knights on horses, people from different contrade singing and chanting, and everyone was just so proud of their history and culture!
If you’re down for a trip down memory lane, Siena is the place to go. It was like living in a history book!—Hershey
Locals brag that Lucca is the city of a hundred churches—you might think it’s a huge exaggeration, but the actual number is pretty close. (If you count the private chapels found in hidden courtyards, you’ll exceed 100 for sure.) Located less than an hour away from busy Pisa, the small town offers a wonderful sampling of architecture, a laid-back charm, and sweet serenity. As you walk the cobblestone streets, you’ll barely hear any English—the few tourists you’ll meet are almost all Italian. —Josh
Just like the Philippines’ very own Intramuros, Lucca is a walled city! Its 16th century walls give the place so much charm and character, stepping inside is like traveling all the way back to the Renaissance era.—Hershey
Just a short train ride away, Hershey and I treated Lucca as an add-on to our Pisa day trip, but as we left town in late afternoon, we found ourselves wishing we had more time to spend here. After all, how can you absorb over 2,200 years of history in a day? Lucca was first an Etruscan settlement, part of the heartland of the fierce Etruscan people, who struggled for ascendancy against ancient Rome. In fact, the province’s modern-day name of Tuscany is a reference to them.
Today, Lucca continues to display one-of-a-kind features that hint at Roman occupation. Every Roman colony has a forum, but the Piazza dell’Anfiteatro belongs to Lucca alone. An amphitheater used to stand where this unique plaza is today, and people constructed homes smack against the venue’s outer walls. Today, only the buildings remain, leaving the circular plaza in place of where the amphitheater once stood. Step into the center of the plaza and imagine yourself an orator or actor, with hundreds of Romans looking down on you from the stands. —Josh
Travellers say that a great way to see Lucca is to walk or bike around the 16th century city walls, a wide belt of green surrounding the compact town center. When other Italian cities tore down their walls, Lucca kept theirs intact, choosing instead to set sprawling lawns and plant trees where soldiers once stood guard. Isn’t that just charming? It also means that if you do the four kilometer loop, there’s no need to worry about the sun.
Since Hershey and I were pressed for time, we didn’t do the walk. But as we entered town coming from the train station, we had to go up the wall and down again. On our way out, we found a hidden passage for pedestrians. It snaked through the walls and exited near a arrow-shaped bastion. Perhaps this was once a sally port where defenders would sneak out to attack besieging enemy troops? —Josh
One of my favorite structures in this quaint, wise city is the Guinigi tower—this is just one of the 9 remaining towers within the city walls. Rich families built bell towers next to their homes to symbolize wealth—but they were also used as lookout spots for when trouble arrives. Look up and spot the garden of ancient trees on its roof! These holm oaks symbolize birth and renewal. —Hershey
Let’s go back to the churches for a bit. In medieval times, Lucca was part of the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage route to Rome. The townspeople made money hosting and feeding the pious, some coming from as far as Canterbury, England. After raking in so much cash, the town decided to give back to God, which is why there are so many churches. Some squares have as many as three churches, literally next to each other! —Josh
One of the must visits is the duomo, dedicated to St. Martin. When Hershey and I visited, exterior renovations were ongoing, so we weren’t able to see the towering facade in its entirety. You shouldn’t be surprised, because work on the cathedral began almost 1000 years ago. It was commissioned by a bishop of Lucca, who was eventually elected pope.
However, we were able to appreciate the Church of San Michele in Foro, built on the remains of the Roman forum. The bright white facade is made of limestone, and topped with a statue of the archangel, conquering spear in one hand, and the world and the cross in the other. Supposedly, the statue has a diamond ring in his hand, which sparkles when sunlight hits it early in the morning.
The cozy city is far more than the sum of its touristy parts. It’s the perfect place to unwind after covering the more visited parts of Tuscany. Whether you tack it on a Pisa day trip like we did, or spend the night there to explore at a more leisurely pace, we’re sure you’ll appreciate the intersection of history and nature in Lucca.—Josh