“What do you know about Siena?”
A question like that is pretty normal in Italy, when uttered by a visitor. “How far’s Rome?” “Could we go to Venice and back in a day?” Questions we’ve heard and answered typically end up taking us on an unsuspected day trip. Just a “little” outing. We always enjoy the possibility of further exploration. So once a question is asked, we go into gear, planning and heading out on the new adventure.
Siena is only about an hour south on the Si-Fi (Siena-Firenze connector). We like to go late morning, so that we’re there for lunch. I looked online for the restaurant where we ate with our friends a couple of years ago. Serena is a resident of Siena, so when she suggested the Taverna di San Giuseppe, we were delighted. Of course we forgot to pick up a card at the door and couldn’t remember the name, so we had to rediscover it—online. Thanks to photos, we immediately recognized the interior. We called and were asked to wait. “Un attimo, per favore, Just a minute please.” Then we received good news: “Okay, okay, all’una per tre persone, at one pm for 3.” It was a deal!
The drive seemed longer than we remembered since we wanted to park on the south side of the old wall. With the walk into town, we’d be 15 minutes late. Oh well, that’s punctual in Italy. As we strolled up the hill, we saw a poster: il Palio, luglio 2, 2011. What?! That can’t be right. After all, that would be today and we hadn’t heard anything about it. Surely we would never have gotten into the restaurant if that was true. Yet, we wondered—how curious.
After ordering our lunch (where we clearly got the last available table in the restaurant) we asked the waiter, “È oggi il palio? Is the Palio today?” We truly expected some chuckling at our misunderstanding, but instead he responded, “Si, si alle sette e mezzo, Yes, yes at seven-thirty.” How could that be? Are you kidding me? We had “accidently” happened into Siena on their most celebrated day of the year. The Palio. THE one and only Palio which means “prize.” We felt like perhaps we were already the winners!
The Palio is the horse race around il Campo, the main piazza in Siena. There are 17 contrade, neighborhoods within the Roman walls, and each offers a horse and rider for the race. Lots are drawn and the field is narrowed to 10, since the track is relatively small. But it’s not just a horse race, no. This is Italy. That means that it is a centuries old, time honored tradition. That means that there’s a processional in full medieval costumes. It’s a very big deal. So we decided to just stay for the day to catch the race and do this thing right. Good idea. “How much for tickets?” we asked. “O, quattro cento euro, oh, about 400 euro!” That’s roughly $600!! Per ticket, and there were 3 of us. “Ma d’entro il campo e gratis, But inside the track is free!” Wow! That sounded a lot better. We’d have to check it out to see if there’s room for 3 more enthusiasts.
So after lunch we walked the 400 meters from the Taverna to Piazza il Campo. A small crowd had already gathered. It was about 3 pm. Hmmmm. Maybe we should just stake a site and stay put for the race. It would be run in, let’s see . . . 4 1/2 hours! We walked the perimeter of the piazza to determine the best vantage point. We decided that, as we faced the tower, to the right was the best place. So we stood there for 30 minutes or so. Then we sat down. People continued to filter into the piazza through the half dozen openings. The crowd grew and grew. Excitement began to build. Informal spectator communities formed. Territories were claimed. The cobblestones seemed to harden beneath us, as we shifted to find more comfortable positions.
And then, at 5 pm, the festivities began. Riders tested the track. Good. Well-packed. Once they cleared the area, the parade began. There were marchers, trumpeters, flag wavers and medieval bands. All 17 neighborhoods were represented, flag colors flying amid clothing that matched the flags. The judges were paraded onto the track high atop the ancient carriage reserved for the dignitaries. The old wooden cart was pulled by 4 white Chiantigiane oxen, decorated with flowers.
The parade lasted until 7 pm. Then the horses were presented. The crowd roared when their preferred neighborhood colors came trotting out of the opening beside the medici palace. Some of the horses were skittish. They’d practiced on the track, of course, but those entering their first race had never seen the piazza filled with 10,000 spectators before. After a couple of minutes, they seemed to settle down. Then they were called to the starting line. And k-BOOM! A shot was fired and off they ran.
What a sight! The riders rode bareback, just as tradition dictates. Holding on was a “feat” in itself (pardon the pun)! Soon enough, some always lose their balance and dangerously fall off their horses. The race continues however, by way of riderless horses! According to Palio rules, the horse must finish the race—with or without a rider. At the first sharp turn, horses collided with one another and down went the horse and the rider! By the end of the race, half of the horses were running alone. The horse named Mississippi won, with the rider still on his back. The Oca, Goose neighborhood finished the 3 laps first. Giovanni Atzeni rode his faithful horse to victory.
Only minutes after the starting line rope was dropped, it was over. With one great blast of cheering and applause, the annual July celebration was history. With that, the crowd began to disperse and soon we were headed back to the car for our drive north. It was truly a happenstance day. Good luck. “The chance of a lifetime in a lifetime of chance.”* We’re now beginning to understand that the Palio is far more than a horse race in a piazza—it’s the Italian “race of the soul.”
*Dan Fogelberg – Run for the Roses
Note: You may also be interested in our video of the annual race in Montepulciano called “Prize of the Barrels,” where they roll wine barrels through the streets of town.