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Why Prince William and Kate should visit Siena
St Catherine's Day
If ever Prince William and his wife Kate decide to visit Siena they will inevitably give a thumb’s-up greeting to the city’s San Domenico Church.
For when the royal couple, Wills and Kate (Catherine Middleton), married in 2011, they chose April 29th - St Catherine’s Day. This was a tribute and honour to Kate’s namesake St Catherine of Siena who is entombed in the wonderful old church.
Well, parts of her are, anyway.
I have to wonder how much the royal couple know of St Catherine.
Siena is a medieval city in the region of Tuscany, northern Italy. The historic centre is a declared UNESCO world heritage site, famous for history, art, museums, a most colourful horse race and St Catherine.
The head and right thumb of St Catherine
Be warned. A browse through the vast Basilica San Domenico can be confronting.
Screened, behind an ornate glass reliquary, gazing directly at you, is the dismembered, mummified head of Saint Catherine herself (1347-1380).
That’s not all. Her right thumb positively glows in a smaller case not far away.
St Catherine was a visionary, dedicating her life to prayer and worship. She is said to have received the stigmata, she levitated and she refused to eat or drink anything - except for the blessed Sacrament.
When St Catherine died in Rome, her followers in her hometown of Siena naturally wanted her body to be brought home. When this was denied they did what they could.
Unable to smuggle her whole body out of the Rome they took her head and her thumb in a bag. According to the story, as they were leaving, the guards stopped them - prayers were sent to St Catherine to protect and help them.
The guards looked in the bag and saw – not the head but hundreds of rose petals. When they returned to Siena the head had re-materialized. A miracle?
To this day the head and thumb are on view and much revered.
Siena has another unusual attraction. The Palio is known world wide as a unique horse race. This is held twice a year - July 2 and August 16. The race is held around the around the historic, world heritage city square, the Piazza del Campo.
Preparations for this legendary race are ongoing all year, every year. Individual districts, known as contrada, spend every spare euro and more, in the hope of winning this most prestigious race.
The horses are pampered, groomed, trained, and until the big day, hidden away in secret places all over the city.
Tradition also demands that each horse receives a benediction in a church before the race.
The night before the race each contrada organises a banquet. Thousands of people eat sumptuous food on tables all around the square.
The lavish food and celebrations are a rehearsal – an anticipation of victory for the horse of their district.
On the big day the Piazza del Campo is prepared with a thick layer of dirt. A colourful pageant precedes the race, flag wavers in medieval costumes, a charge of sword wielding horse riders gallop around the square.
The jockeys are resplendent in costume and ride bareback. It’s not unusual for a jockey to fall and the winning horse to be unmounted.
Siena – one beautiful city to visit
Built on three hills, Siena is surely one of the most beautiful cities in the Tuscany region of Italy. The huge shell-shaped square, the Piazza del Campo, is at the heart of winding streets, steep steps, medieval buildings and Gothic architecture
There’s much to see in this historic city. The cathedral, churches, museums, the town hall, the Mangia tower - you can walk up the tower's 500 or so steps for some great views of the piazza and surrounding town.
Seek, and you’ll find masterpieces of frescoes and art. And visit the trattorias for magnificent Italian food and coffee.
Using Siena as a base you’ll discover something fascinating wherever you roam. The Chianti area is dotted with olive trees, vineyards, and historic towns rich in history. This is a great base for a Tuscan experience.
Finding St Catherine
And should William and Kate ever decide to pursue her namesake, while St Catherine’s head and thumb are on view in Siena, her body is in Rome, and her foot is said to be in a reliquary in Venice.