I never thought about it during the first day there, but Siena, Italy is a place that can be viewed through a few lenses. Sachi made an observation that put the city into a unique perspective and changed what really interested me about it.
We were wandering and visibly excited (I’m sure) to be experiencing one of the most atmospheric cities on the trip. Siena blew us away with charm and history, as did her little brother San Gimignano. Both walled, medieval cities with narrow, winding streets – they drip with Euro-charm and overall Tuscan wine country pleasantness.
These cities are not practical for cars and thankfully, there were few. It’s rare to see a car parked within the walls and only regulated commercial cars run about consistently. This makes the cities very pedestrian-friendly and protective of their 12th century buildings.
After a day of wandering, Sachi mentioned that if you looked at the city’s appearance from a modern perspective, Siena looks dirty and a little broken down. At first I dismissed it, but then took a second look. She was speaking the truth.
I soon realized that Siena was showing its age in a serious and conflicting way. The city is free of rubbish, but in many places, you can tell that the bricks have collected the exhaust from too many cars for too many years.
Plaster crumbles and paint fades. Stone pavement covers nearly the whole surface as life finds a foothold among windowsills.
Rusted horse ties, broken street lights and powerful doors adorn a city preserved. Siena is a city where the evidence of age and 100’s of years of use has become an asset - a defining factor.
Siena is also a city that has been left alone. The buildings have not been painted in years and may never see paint again. There are no cars, but the walls have been shaped by years of opened doors and clipped corners. Foundations of buildings appear to be wilting away before your eyes. Yet, it is all part of the undeniable charm that becomes invisible as it blends so perfectly with the overall atmosphere. In Siena, age is beautiful.
The city leaves us both comparing the ways in which historical cities and sites are managed. Siena is a preserved city – it looks and feels like a city that is 1000+ years old and it represents what we look for in sites. You can see how time has changed it.
Compare this to many of China’s sites that have been renovated recently (many after demolition by the Communists). The Great Wall is a great example of renovation. It is quite difficult to visit the wall from Beijing and see the “original” wall. In most tourist-accessible places it has been renovated into a safe and secure experience that is mostly free from many of the genuine articles of the original wall. Not interesting to us.
Siena helped us to see that preservation is something that we look for and appreciate (when reasonable). I want to see a city that wears its years like a badge of honor. I want to scramble over the Great Wall that is still trying it’s best to stand up to the years. I want to see the effects of time on the genuine articles – and preservation is what we’ve learned to appreciate most.