Sometimes it appears as if life in Siena has been unchanged for centuries. The walls that enclose this exquisite medieval city seem to have protected and preserved its culture, as well as its architecture, and local traditions are proudly upheld. Situated in the south of Tuscany, and surrounded by postcard-pretty scenery, it features on many tourist itineraries - yet visitors usually only allow a day to explore, consequently missing the pleasure of discovering the city's atmospheric maze of narrow lanes and alleyways.
Siena grew wealthy in the early Middle Ages, as it was an important stop on the Via Francigena - the pilgrim route from France to Rome. The influx of travellers and merchants led to the establishment of hostels, shops, a university and banking facilities - including, in 1472, the powerful Monte dei Paschi Bank, which still has its headquarters in the city. However, in the 16th-century, the independent city state was beaten by its enemy to the north, Florence, and became part of Tuscany. Siena is divided into separate districts, contrade, as it was in medieval times. The fierce rivalry that exists between them is played out each year in the Palio, a brutal bareback horse-race that is run on the main piazza, the Campo, in July and August. At these times the city gets so busy it seems as if it will burst from its walls, but at other times visitors can enjoy more relaxing visits to its stunning cathedral, ancient palaces and tempting shops.
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