The Mole Diaries: Siena

The Mole Diaries: Siena by ho visto nina volare

This article was written by Renate, published on 4th February 2011 and has been read 45505 times.

As part of her bachelor's degree in Italian at Reading University, Renate is spending her year abroad studying at the Universita' Degli Studi di Siena. Here she gives us her top insider advice about where to live, getting around town, living costs, sightseeing, the nightlife and her top tips for things to see and places to eat in Siena.

Finding somewhere to live

One of Siena’s good points 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. The standard price for a single room in the city centre, usually including bills is 400 Euros, anything below is wonderful, anything more than that is a little pricey. If you don’t mind sharing a room with someone, a “posto letto” (a twin room) is cheaper at around €300 a month or less. It is a good idea before you agree to anything to check with your landlord regarding the facilities in your prospective house - I didn’t and I learnt the hard way. I thought I had found the perfect room in a centrally-located apartment, but after I moved in I realised that there wasn’t a washing machine, nor did I have a radiator in my room. I was both freezing cold and spending an extra €40-50 a month doing laundry. I have since moved into a cheaper flat (with a washing machine and fully functioning central heating) and I am much happier. Two useful sites for finding a place in Siena are Uniaffitti, the second is Easystanza. It is also possible to find a house by checking faculty notice boards for ads, though I would recommend finding somewhere to live before you arrive.

Studying in Siena

Siena by vic15There is only one word to describe Italian Universities: chaotic. Offices are only open at certain times of day and often there is a long queue of students waiting to be seen. Similarly, professors usually only see their students during a weekly “ricevuto”, which basically means you have to go there at a certain time and wait your turn. It is a good idea to check the website and faculty notice boards constantly, because lesson times and locations change without warning. When it comes to exams you have to sign up yourself- it is very much down to the student to get themselves where they need to be. And if you send an email, don’t expect a reply on the same day. I am still awaiting replies to emails I sent months ago. You need to learn to be self-sufficient. Following lectures can be difficult, but most professors understand this. At the Orientation Day during my first week in Siena, we (the Erasmus students) were told that during the exams, if we failed, we would be “treated like the Italian students.” However, the general consensus is that most professors give more leeway to foreign students during the exams. Lecturers in Italy often seem very stern, but that’s just an Italian thing and most of them are pleasant. Just don’t ever call them anything other than “professore”, or heads will roll.

Getting around Siena

Fountain in Siena's Piazza del Campo by ho visto nina volareSince arriving in Siena, I have not once used the bus. They exist, but because of the size of the place, everything is reachable on foot. The only place to which it is necessary to take the bus is the station, which is a 40 minute walk from the city centre. Bus tickets can be purchased from the one of Siena’s many Tabaccherie (Tobacconist’s shops) and cost €1.00.

Travelling further afield 

From Siena’s Piazza Gramsci, you can take a bus to a number of places in Tuscany and the rest of Italy including Rome. The coach to Florence is only 7 Euros and provided you catch the express service you can get there in just over an hour- perfect for those essential trips to H&M (there isn’t one in Siena). Tickets to all destinations can be purchased in the “La Lizza” underpass beneath Piazza Gramsci. It is preferable to take the coach rather than the train for pure convenience- Piazza Gramsci is more central, where as Siena station is outside the city walls and, as previously mentioned, is a bit of a mission on foot.

Living Costs 

market fruit by ho visto nina volareWhen it comes to food and everyday amenities, Siena is a good place to be skint, as the following list demonstrates (these are the cheapest prices I have found, not averages):
Bus ticket: €1, zero if you go on foot!
Loaf of sliced bread: €1.00
Bottle of water (supermarket): €0.35-0.50
Coffee (standing at the bar): €1.00
Packet of pasta: €0.60
Pizza al taglio (takeaway slice of pizza): €2.50
Large bottle of Peroni beer (supermarket): €0.89
2L bottle of Montepulciano wine: €2.00 (You can buy cheaper!)
Pack of toilet paper: €0.99
Toothpaste: €1.50

The sorts of items that are more expensive in Siena are those such as books (just a penguin classic is €10.00 or more), cosmetics, foreign magazines (€6.00-€10.00), duvets (over €100 in some cases!) and DVD’s (in excess of €14.00 for a film you could buy in HMV for a fiver). Aside from the supermarkets and the 99 cent stores (of which there are a good few), there aren’t many cheap shops in Siena, especially those that sell electronic items, clothing, books and home ware. To get the aforementioned items at a more reasonable rate, you need to find a “Centro Commerciale” (a shopping mall) further afield, or a large superstore such as the Co-op. There is a market next to Piazza Gramsci on Wednesday mornings that sells a range of clothes and other items at affordable prices. And finally - don’t, whatever you do, buy toiletries from the pharmacy, unless you want to pay through the nose. I once paid €9.00 for a deodorant, an act that I deeply regret.

Keeping Fit

No one ever tells you about gyms or places to exercise because they think you will spend the whole year padding around churches and sipping bellinis. The truth is, to avoid insanity, after a while you have to start living as you would at home, and if that includes a nightly run or sweating it out in the gym then you need to know where to go. La Fortezza, the medieval fortress, is a wonderful place to run and its vantage point means picture-perfect views of Siena and the Tuscan countryside. If you are more of a gym bunny, there’s Gold gym (Via di Fiera Vecchia) or Happy Gym (Strada di Sant'Eugenia). Gym membership doesn’t come cheap at around €50.00-€65.00 a month, but at Gold gym you can also pay a similar monthly rate for unlimited classes such as kickboxing, spinning and pilates. For those who dance there is the Ateneo della Danza (Via dei Pispini) which offers classes in a wide range of disciplines including Ballet, Latin American, Hip-Hop and Jazz.

Things To Do in Siena

Duomo di Siena by Nicholas NgOne of the best ways of getting to know Siena is taking a guidebook and map and going for a meander. As everything is in walking distance you can take in most of the main tourist attractions in a couple of days. Some suggestions:

The Duomo and its museums (well, obviously).  San Domenico - the church that holds the mummified of St. Catherine of Siena.  Torre del mangia (the tower that dominates the Siena skyline) and the Palazzo Pubblico below with its famous artworks and occasional exhibitions and events.  Pinacoteca Nazionale - Siena’s art museum that houses some of the finest examples of Italian painting.  The Torture Museum - €7 gets you an insight into the more gruesome aspects of Siena’s history, and free entry to the Capital Punishment museum in nearby San Gimignano, apparently... For those who like a good film (who doesn’t?), there is the Odeon cinema in Via Banchi di Sopra. The screen is small, and sometimes the film stops running half way through for no reason, but that’s all part of the experience. 

The nightlife

The nucleus of Siena’s nightlife is Piazza del campo, especially in the summer where it is customary to sit on the floor drinking beer. There are often concerts both in the open and at the local theatre, perfect for lovers of music. Taking aperitivo 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 enjoy, or the food is brought to you, should you decide to use table service. Show your Erasmus student card and you can get a discount on cocktails in some bars. The vibe in Siena is more chilled than wild, and for this reason it’s not the best place for diehard clubbers. There is one bar-cum-disco in Siena, Il Cambio (Via Pantaneto), that has both club nights and gigs, but it is tiny and you spend most of the night standing outside clutching your drink. It is possible to get to a ‘proper’ night club, you just have to travel a little outside Siena. The “Gruppo Erasmus Siena” often organises coaches there on a Friday night. 

My favourite places to eat and drink in Siena

by ho visto nina volare1) Meet Life Café, Via Pantaneto.
This cafe does teas, coffees, reasonably priced lunches and a ‘happy hour’ selling cocktails for €3.50. After 7pm there is a free aperitivo buffet for anyone who spends more than €2.50 on a drink.

2) The Tea Room, Via di Porta Giustizia.
Tucked away behind Piazza del campo and with over 50 different types of tea on the menu, Tea Room is, well, a tea lover’s dream! If you fancy something stronger they also do alcohol, the only thing they don’t do is savoury food- it’s desserts and cakes all the way.

3) Key Lago, Via Rinaldini.
A bar and coffee shop, Key Lago has a balcony that looks out onto piazza del campo, so you can take your cappuccino with a view.

4) The Dublin Post (Irish Pub), Piazza Gramsci.
One for homesick Brits as well as the Irish, this bar has a traditional pub feel, with an Italian twist. It does a free aperitivo buffet most nights and a latin night on Sunday. It is also a good place to go for a light lunch during the day, selling sandwiches, salads and cold cut platters at reasonable prices.

5) El Gringo, Via Pantaneto.
One of the very few world cuisine restaurants in Siena, El Gringo has a wide range of Mexican dishes. You have to eat on plastic plates, but it’s so cheap you can’t complain. They also do a home delivery service if you are too lazy to leave your house.

6) Grom (Via Banchi di Sopra).
Grom is an ice cream shop selling a multitude of flavours which change according to the season. It’s a great place to go in the evenings if you fancy a walk before pudding. Their yoghurt ice cream is my favourite.

Learning Italian in Siena

Street in Siena by BaruckSiena is a touristy place and many people speak English, which can be a bad thing for language learners. By pure virtue of being British or American, people in shops and cafes often assume that you are a tourist who can’t speak a word of Italian. If you have an obvious English accent, there is a tendency for people to revert to English, even if you start the conversation in Italian. I used to find it rude, but I have come to realise that they are only trying to help (and practice their English, which is sweet if you think about it). When it comes to speaking Italian, you need to persevere and say no, we are in Italy, I am here to learn, so let’s talk in Italian. Most of the time people will indulge you, but there will be times when you are tired or you just want to get something done- in these cases finding an English speaker can be a godsend. To improve your Italian, it is a good idea to attend a language course or keep studying in your own time. Words you learn through your studies will start to come up in context during real life situations and you will gain a better understanding of their usage. Additionally, it is a good idea to watch Italian TV and read the newspapers to completely immerse yourself. Italian television isn’t wonderful (unless you like scantily clad women and game shows), but it is great for honing your listening skills, plus it gives you a bit of an education in Italian popular culture. P.S. I shouldn’t be telling you this, but if you are having a bad day and don’t want to be spoken to in Italian, earphones come in very useful!

The Palio

Piazza del Campo by Nicholas NgIf you have heard of Siena, you will know about Il Palio - the annual horse race that happens in Piazza del campo every summer - once in July and again in August. 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. Each Contrada sends a horse to compete, and if they win then the celebrations go on long after the Palio has finished. It is inadvisable to live next to a Contrada meeting place. I do, and it is like living above a rowdy youth club!

Some points about the people of Siena (and the things that aren’t so pleasant)

People in Siena are very proud of their heritage and their cuisine. Additionally, like most Italians, to “fare una bella figura” (to make a good impression basically) is of utmost importance. As a foreigner it can feel as though everyone is looking down on you- your clothes, what you eat, your New Look boots. If I got a pound for every time a snooty middle aged woman with an animal pelt across her shoulders looked at me as though I’d just crawled out of a piece of cheese, I wouldn’t still be flying to Italy with Easyjet! In a similar vein, learning to use your elbows and dodge cars and people are very important skills to have during your Year Abroad. People in Siena, on the road, on the pavement and in the shops, can be quite inconsiderate- behaviour that in England we call rudeness, but in Siena is normal. You need to learn to be a little bit pushy to get things done, especially in the supermarket where queuing is almost unheard of.

And finally... Some general observations about life in Siena and Tuscany

Inside the Duomo di Siena by ho visto nina volareWhen I put down Siena as one of my Year Abroad choices I really did believe all the hype surrounding Tuscany. It is a beautiful place with an illustrious history but it can be quite insular. People in Tuscany are so used to tourists that at times you almost feel that there is an air of contempt towards you if you are foreign. Italian students I know have said how angry it makes them that many shopkeepers treat tourists like idiots and try to rip them off. This type of behaviour is not specific to Siena- it’s the same in any town or city that is popular with tourists - you just have to keep your eyes open and rise above it. Reports state that the quality of life in Siena is very good and I agree wholeheartedly. Had I gone to big city I would not be living in such a central location because it’d be out of my price range. Additionally, I have never felt in danger walking around town alone at night. Like everywhere, you have to be sensible, but from what I hear the crime rate is pretty low and the types of muggings reported in places like Rome and Naples are virtually unheard of. Siena is certainly one of Italy’s more ‘genteel’ towns and, despite my article’s cynical undertones, I have no regrets about choosing it as a location for my Year Abroad experience.

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