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Siena, Part III: Il Palio

The plaza is getting crowded.  Its about an hour before the race is to start and we are forced to get up from our spots on the ground lest we get trampled by the pressing masses.  Large contingents of fans from each contrada are concentrated in various regions of the inner plaza, and they sporadically erupt in loud bouts of cheering.  The energy of the spectators seems to reverberate through the crowd like waves on a turbulent sea.  Back and forth go the chants, each contrada doubtlessly pronouncing their superiority while hurling disparaging insults at their rival neighborhoods.  Though our paltry grasp of Italian limited our comprehension, it didn’t stop us from taking part and throwing in a few cheers of our own for good measure- Jake’s recent submersion in English Premier League football helped with that.  Kacey and I of course where rooting for the Fish contrada, while Jackie threw her lot in with the Shells, and Jake, Meg and Pat chose the Elephants for their banner.

Here come the cavalry

Here come the cavalry

The tension of anticipation in the crowd seemed to grow with every passing minute, and it was hard to guess what would happen next.  The cheers got louder as a troop of Italian dragoons trotted on to the track with military precision, and they made their way around the oval in a stately parade.  Then, without warning they started to gallop at speed- it was a full on cavalry charge!  They rushed around the track with reckless abandon, swords drawn and thrust before them ready for the attack.  I am not really familiar with Italy’s military success throughout history, but I can say I think it would be very hard to stand one’s ground when presented with the business end of those charging sabers- if they didn’t win a few battles using this tactic, I don’t know what they did wrong.

The cavalry made a last pass, and exited the Piazza through a side alley.  A minute later a giant door opened at the front of the town hall, and the crowd erupted in noise.  One by one the horses, with riders colorfully costumed, proceeded out the door onto the track, where an official handed them a traditional, but rather odd, riding crop- a dried bull’s phallus.  Depending on the temperament of the crowd, waves of supporting cheers or outbreaks of derisive whistling followed the riders as they made their way 180 degrees around the course to the starting line.

Riders waiting for the race to start

Riders waiting for the race to start

The start of the race is handled in a peculiar way:  nine of the ten contestants line up abreast a heavy rope stretched taught across the track, while the tenth rider holds back behind the pack walking his horse in endless circles.  The start is totally dependent on him- at his leisure he may bolt towards the line without warning, hopefully catching the other riders unawares.  This action signals the start of the race- the rope is immediately dropped while simultaneously a cannon blast sounds, and the horses are off.  Of course, there are many false starts and resets, brought on by the anxious and bothered disposition of the nine waiting horses, whose riders try lamely to keep them in line, while the whole situation is aggravated by the relentless feints and fake starts of the tenth horse.  Eventually, after about 30 minutes of this tomfoolery in our case, there was a clean start, and the horses truly were off!

From our position in the crowd, it was difficult to see much more than the colorful helmets of the riders go zipping by, over the heads of the spectators in front of us.  Even so, I have to admit that I had a better vantage than most due to my height- poor Kacey, Jackie and Meg- they could barely see anything at all!  But it didn’t matter too much- you could feel the horses as they raced by, the pounding of their hooves, and the collective surge of the crowd craning their necks to get a view.

Coming around turn two- JR

Coming around turn two- JR

Our blue and white Fish horse got out to a good start, but was over taken a few turns in.  After the third lap, with at least one rider thrown off, it was a close match between the black Wolf and the green Swan… two turns to go and they were neck and neck, one turn left and the Swan takes a slight lead on the outside track, now the last leg, the Wolf is closing, five lengths to go, two, one… and the Swan wins by a nose!  The crowd explodes in noise!  Hundreds of fans flood onto the track.  A mob of Swan supporters scale the woodwork and pluck the Palio banner from its perch next to the town dignitaries.  The whole scene is pandemonium, and just like that, we are all Swans, the whole crowd, cheering and celebrating for victory.

The fans go crazy and storm the track- they climb up the stands to grab the victory banner

The fans go crazy and storm the track- they climb up the stands to grab the victory banner

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Siena, Part II: Pre-race

I think the reason we love Italy, and Europe in general, so much, is tradition.  The place is steeped in it.  And even through centuries of wars, and plagues and political upheavals of every kind they somehow manage to keep their traditions alive and strong.  I know we have a few good ones in the states, the recent running of the Kentucky Derby comes to mind, but even that is a mere baby compared to what Europe can put up for offer.  Drawing from the realm of horse racing for comparison sake, the bareback riders of Il Palio have been pounding their hooves around the streets of Siena since medieval times, a good two centuries before the equine was even reintroduced to the Americas.  And it was to take part in this ancient tradition that we were so eager to return to our favorite Italian city.

Here come the horses- JR

Here come the horses- JR

The race consists of ten horses assigned by lottery to 10 of the 17 contradas, or neighborhoods, of the city.  Each contrada chooses their brashest young man to act as jokey, but in the end, the only thing that matters is which horse crosses the finish line first, with the rider still mounted or not.  The winning horse claims Il Palio, a large ornate banner, as a spoil of victory- but the gloating rights that come with the banner are even more important to the contrada.  The track is constructed by barricading off the outer ring of the main Plaza del Campo, and trucking in tons of dirt and sand for the horses to run on.  Inside this ring stand thousands of spectators, each craning their necks to try for a glance of the horses as they race by.  Around the outside of the track are steep bleachers erected along the faces of every building, indeed they completely cover every storefront.  These seats are expensive to reserve, and are definitely a big step up from the free inner circle, but the real vip experience is to watch the race from a window or private balcony of one of the many apartments in the buildings surrounding the plaza.

Everyone waiting for the race to start in the hot sun

Everyone waiting for the race to start in the hot sun

The thrifty travelers we are, we took our spot squarely in the masses of plebeians, as close to the track as we could elbow, but seeing as we got there only a mere four hours before the race, there was already a crowd 8 or 10 deep staking out the rail.   There is a lot of pomp and ceremony that goes on before the horses even make their appearance, conveniently about four hours of it, so we were well entertained while we waited for the main event- and luckily, we had the foresight to bring along our cache of “free” wine that we pilfered from the leftovers of the previous night’s block party, in plastic water bottles to be discreet, which kept the time running smoothly as we lingered under the hot Tuscan sun.

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Siena, Part I: Our City

It was a cold and dreary winter toiling away at the grindstone in Pittsburgh, made longer by the anticipation of our Aegean Expedition.  I don’t think it really warmed up until the week before our departure at the end of June, Pittsburgh’s feeble attempt to convince us to stay, or at least trick us into thinking it might be pleasant if we decided to ever come back.  I will say that it can be a charming city when it wants to… but this time its ploy didn’t work.  We were on the plane, two carry-ons and no checked bags, and we weren’t looking back.  First, off to a wedding of some dear friends in Colorado, and then, before we knew it, on our way across the pond, a quick layover in Brussels, and touching down in sunny Florence.  It really is a marvel how quickly you can change environments in the modern day!

The Plaza del Campo- Siena's main square

The Plaza del Campo- Siena's main square

We immediately jumped on the train south to Siena which afforded a much needed jet-lag nap, taxi to the BnB, a few staccato raps on the door, and there stood Jake and Jackie, with big smiles, a cold beer, and a tall glass of red wine waiting to greet us!  It felt oddly like coming home.  But we wasted little time with pleasantries- the city was beckoning.  After all our travels, across dozens of countries and through hundreds of cities, Siena remains one of our favorites.  It just has a certain charm that makes everything in it seem fresh and novel, while at the same time familiar, like you have lived there all your life.  Add to this the excitement surrounding the upcoming horse race, Il Palio, and we were knocking each other over to get out the door and into the historied streets.

2 Comments

  1. Amy Anderson says:

    Great photos and good going on helping clean up wine bottles!

  2. Dave says:

    Thanks Amy!- it really was the least we could do ;)

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