The Mole Diaries: Siena (Volume 2)
Il Palio by Janus Kinase
Pippa is studying French and Italian at Bath University, and spending her year abroad in Paris, Lyon and as an Erasmus student in Siena. Here she passes on her top tips about accommodation, getting around town, studying in Siena, travelling further afield, eating out, shopping, keeping fit, nightlife, learning Italian, the Palio, the Sienese and safety in Siena.
Finding somewhere to liveI’m going to go against the most common nugget of advice here and say that although a lot of people would recommend finding a place to live before you arrive, I personally think that it’s much easier to find accommodation when you’re actually here.
There aren’t many cheap places to stay in Siena but it would be perfectly feasable to book a room at Casa di Alfredo for a week and look once you arrive. To do so all you need to do is get yourself to the tourist office or look on the many notice boards around the university which are always full at the beginning of the year of advertisements for places. I say this because out here you really need to look round the accommodation before you agree to anything, and check with your landlord regarding the facilities in your prospective house.
Be aware that single rooms can be rather costly - upwards of €400. If you want to get something cheap look for a “posto letto” or a “doppia” (double) but be aware that this will be a bed in a shared room.
For those who would feel happier finding somewhere before you leave, the two best websites are Uni Affitti and Easy Stanza.
Getting aroundA good thing with Siena is that as long as you live “dentro le mura” (inside the city walls), you can feasibly walk anywhere in the city - nowhere is out of the way and the longest you’ll have to walk is 30 minutes (or 40 if you go at snail's pace)
If you do need to take a bus you can buy tickets from local newsagents and shops and they cost €1 for a single ticket. To be honest I’ve only ever been on the bus 3 or 4 times since I got here and that was to go to the big supermarket out of town, or when I was too lazy to do the 30-minute walk to the train station!
You’re supposed to stamp your bus ticket when you get on the bus and if you get checked and haven’t done it there is a fine to pay. I have never seen a “checker” and I’ve been living here over a month now, a lot of things in Italy are based on trust that you will do what you’re supposed to do. This goes for the bars too, it is quite easy to walk out of a bar without paying as the Italians are strangely disorganised, give you what you want and trust you to tell them what you had before you leave. I am, of course, not in anyway condoning theft, but just making you aware of how things work here.
Studying in SienaI am studying at the Università degli Studi di Siena. There are many different faculties dotted around the town, I’m at Scienze Politiche. I must say I don’t even check for opening hours and schedules anymore as I know they don’t mean anything, the organisation of the University here can only be described as a compete chaotic mess. It can be difficult to sort out a timetable without your options clashing. Offices are only open at certain time of the day and you have to queue at a certain time on a certain day to speak to a certain professor. It is a good idea to check the website and faculty notice boards constantly, because lesson times and locations change without warning. What's even more frustrating can be the fact that you show up for a lesson that is cancelled with no prior-warning. You quickly get used to all this though and adapt to the system, as long as you adjust and learn to be self sufficient and a little more care free, things will work well for you here.
You have to find out when and where you need to be and manually sign yourself up for your exams. I have yet to do this, but it all gets explained to you upon arrival in Siena when you register at the university.
Travelling further afieldSiena has good links with many of the most popular cities like Florence and Rome. You can even easily get as far as Venice and Milan thanks to SENA buses which leave from Piazza Gramsci and generally cost a lot less than a train. There is a direct bus to Florence at a cost of €7 which is definitely worth it. It’s also better to leave on a bus from Piazza Gramsci as it is in a more central/easily reachable location (Siena train station is a little further out).
Eating in SienaOnce you enrol at the university you’ll be given a MENSA card. The Mensa is the university cafeteria, there are two in Siena (One on Via S. Bandini and the other is Mensa St Agata near Via Andrea Mattioli). Most Italian students eat here every night rather than cooking as it’s cheap, easy and good for socialising. A meal (starter, main, dessert + fruit + unlimited drinks) would cost around €2.50/3.
My favourite places to eat are:1. El Gringo, Via Pantaneto.
A Mexican restaurant where you can get proper nachos, tortillas and chile con carne. Its colourful and cheap, but you do have to eat on plastic plates! The best thing about this place is that they deliver so if you are too lazy to leave your house you can get tasty mexican food brought right to your door.
2. Gelateria Kopakabana, Via Rossi
For the best and most generous portion of gelato in Siena you should go and see Stella in her ice cream shop not far from the faculty of political sciences, don’t go and get ice cream near the campo unless you want to pay about twice as much!
3. Trattoria Dino, Casato di Sopra
This little place does the best spaghetti bolognese I’ve tasted since I’ve been here for only €5, and they will let you take it away in a box if you want. It's normally always full of old people, but they’re very friendly and talkative, and it's great for practising italian!
Shopping in SienaAttention those who like to shop: SIENA IS EXPENSIVE. All you will find here are small independent and pricey shops with not a lot of choice. The best place is probably OVS which do a few things for the younger generation, but it's still generally very expensive and not overly fashionable. For the nearest H&M you need to head to Florence on that €7 bus!
As for food shopping, you have two CONAD small supermarkets in the walls of the city aswell as a few smaller shops called “SMA BOTTEGA”, if you’re prepared to go a bit further/take a bus you can go to bigger “proper” supermarkets such as PAM, the COOP (both at the train station) and the big CONAD (on the number 3 bus route).
Keeping FitI’ve noticed that before you go on your year abroad no one ever tells you about gyms or places to exercise because they think you will spend the whole year milling around the Tuscan hills in your maxi dress and sunnies while eating a gelato (they’re not far wrong to be honest). However if you’re here long enough you need to get yourself into some sort of routine as you would be back home or else you’ll go slowly stir crazy. For a lot of people this means exercising, for me it’s swimming.
There are a couple of gyms in Siena. Like everything here they are very expensive at about €60 a month but at Gold Gym you can take any classes you like during the week and it is included in this price.
As for swimming, you only really have one choice as although there are two pools, one is simply too far out to reach. However, near Porta Camollia in Piazza G Amendola there is a pool where you can pay €4.90 a time to go for a swim (or €37 for 10 entries to save a bit of money)
For those who dance there is the Ateneo della Danza (Via dei Pispini) and for free exercise, don some trainers and go for a jog around the city, it’s so hilly you’ll be losing weight in no time.
The most important part of Siena’s nightlife is Piazza del Campo, especially in the summer where it is normal to sit on the ground drinking beer with groups of mates.
There are two “clubs” within the walls, Barone Rosso (Thursday/Saturday nights) and Al Cambio (Tuesday Erasmus parties). They are very small and more like a bar with a dancefloor, so Siena is not the place to be for the most diehard of clubbers (although if you venture a little further afield you will find VANILLA, a big “proper” club, the Erasmus group often arrange coaches here with drink deals and discounted entry).
this is also a large part of the night time culture in Siena. Most bars do a free buffet that anyone who buys a drink can access, its normally just finger food.
There are a few pubs in Siena, notably the Irish pub (The Dublin Post in Piazza Gramsci) and for something a little different with a student vibe you can always go “il tea room” where there are often jazz nights and you can get over 50 types of tea, as well as a range of cocktails and cakes (which are brought out to you on a plate which is on fire… interesting!)
Learning Italian in SienaBeware that if you come to study here as an Erasmus exchange student it can be very easy to speak hardly any Italian. You have to explain to people that you are here to learn Italian and therefore you only want to speak in Italian, and be quite forceful with it. Because Siena is full of tourists you will probably find that a lot of the shop owners automatically speak to you in English, again you just have to persevere but it can also be quite nice when you don’t want to speak Italian one day because you are tired. I’d recommend taking a language course which you can arrange with the university and are normally the month before you start lectures. I’d also recommend reading some Italian newspapers and watching Italian TV (although be prepared for repeats of the Simpsons, Dragon Ball Z and a multitude of random game shows!)
The PalioThis is a massive part of Siena's culture, and if you are planning to come here you probably already know a little bit about it. Every summer, an important horse race is held in the main square (piazza il campo) called Il Palio.
Localised patriotism is a key feature of Sienese culture and it is interesting for an outsider to witness how a modern population still observes medieval tradition. Siena is made up of 17 Contradas (districts), each with their own mascot, flag and colours. Each Contrada sends a horse to compete on July 2nd in the Palio, and if they win then the celebrations go on long after the race has finished.
People in SienaMost people are very friendly but a lot can seem inconsiderate. Especially in the streets. It isn’t uncommon to push and shove in the streets to get through the crowds, this is normal behaviour here. You have to be a little pushy and forward yourself if you want to get things done. The Sienese like many other Tuscans are so used to Tourists that they look down on them quite a lot; it can help to look like you know what you’re doing and not walk around with socks in sandals and a camera strapped round your neck unless you want some dirty looks and to be taken for a bit of a ride!
SafetyLike anywhere popular with tourists you have to keep an eye open on thing such as pickpocketing and being ripped off, but this is rare and the crime rate in Siena is very low. It feels very safe waking around late at night and alone (although I’d still recommend staying in a group). You have to be sensible but, from what I hear, the types of muggings and crimes reported in places like Rome and Naples are virtually unheard of here.
To find out what Pippa's up to now, check out her blog!