Italy. I can’t stop writing about it (see A Love Letter to Italy❤️). My fantasy of retiring in the land of pasta and sunflowers does not decrease with each visit. Every year, whenever we talk about where we will travel that summer, Italy is on the list. This past summer – 6 years after our last family visit – it won out, and we made a return trip to Tuscany to hit a few favorites before heading off to our ultimate destination of Switzerland and Germany. We began our Italian journey in Siena and stayed at a favorite nearby tuscan farm just outside of the city (see A Decade at Tenuta di Spannocchia).
I have always found Siena a very easy place to visit with kids, no matter what the age – toddlers, middle grade or teens. Whether it’s climbing the 400 steps to the top of the 14th century tower (Torre del Mangia), running around the grandest of all of Europe’s town squares (Piazza del Campo), wandering the ancient city’s narrow cobblestone streets , or inventing your own stories of the events happening on the beautiful mosaic floors of the Duomo. Siena is a city that entertains everyone.
During our visits there, we have even been lucky enough to experience the famous Palio – a fabulous horse race that occurs twice a year, has weeks of buildup, and lasts no more than 90 seconds. The Palio is a competition among the 17 districts of Siena and the winning district celebrates with a weeks worth of parties. We saw the July 2012 race where Onda (the wave) won – which was the district my youngest picked as her favorite – for more about the Palio read this article.
By far, our favorite activity in Siena, which can be done at any time of year, is what we call The Treasure Hunt. Siena is divided into 17 contrade (neighborhoods or districts) established in the Middle Ages, and still very much recognized today. While the Palio is the culmination of the competition among the contrade, the importance of the districts is also alive and well the rest of the year. Residents are so loyal to their own contrada, that they rarely leave or move. Each contrada also has an annual celebration with parades and banquets for their specific district. Important life events – birth, baptism, marriage, and death – are typically celebrated only within ones own contrada. Every contrada is named after an animal or a symbol and has its own flag and costumes, its own museum, its own church, its own stable (for the Palio horse) and its own fountain. Newborn babies and new neighbors moving into the neighborhood, are “baptized” at the fountain of their own contrada.
The challenge of the Treasure Hunt is a search to find, and take a photo with, each of the 17 fountains in every contrada. So print out the below map, strap on your running shoes and get searching! Some are not easy to find but they are all there. For parents with small children, I recommend choosing a handful of favorite contrada fountains to search for and save the rest for a second (or 3rd) visit. Completing this task in one day will require a lot of walking, but with several days in Siena you can probably get them all done. The districts reveal themselves with tiles on the walls of the streets indicating what area you are in. Your job is to search that area for the fountain of that district. Some of them are big and obvious, some are small and discreet. While we have found them all, I don’t want to give away their location so I am only picturing a few of the more obvious ones. Below are the fountains of the Panther district, the Turtle district, The She Wolf district, the Eagle district, and the Unicorn district.
Here’s a list of the 17 contrada along with their corresponding flags. Below that is a map of the city showing the location of each contrada.
On our first trip to Siena, when the girls were 4 & 6 yrs old, we knew about the contrade but we didn’t realize each one had its own fountain. We stumbled on a few (at this time, Carly was fountain obsessed) and snapped a picture or two along the way. Tiny feet would never have withstood a full-on hunt. On our second visit to Siena (girls were 8 & 10) we were much more prepared. We had learned that each contrada has its own fountain, and at that time I was determined to turn every place we visited into a scavenger hunt to keep my pre teens engaged and interested. We went armed with a map and a picture of each of the symbols. We spent the better part of a day in Siena searching for each of the fountains but tired feet got the better of us and we only found about 10 in total. Fortunately, we were staying a short distance away from the city for a full month, so over the next several weeks we got to return a few more times to find the remaining fountains. We returned this past summer with teens in tow (14 & 16). They had not forgotten our quest to find all of the fountains. This time, however, they were old enough to go off exploring on their own. They each chose 2-3 of their favorites they wanted to visit and set off together to find them. There are so many ways to connect with a contrada – by favorite color, by symbol or favorite animal, or by flag and each time we go back we have a different favorite. One hunt, three different age groups, endless fun! Let us know how many you can find in a day and good luck!