16 August: Palio di Siena (from Lynda)
Siena was full of excitement on the morning of the Palio. The race was to be run at 7:00pm, but we wanted to catch all the pageantry and processions beforehand, and get into the Campo before it was closed.
Spent the early part of the day walking, visiting some of the main sights, and taking in the atmosphere.
In each of the Contrade, people were gathering at little bars and cafes, eating and drinking and talking animatedly – presumably about the chances for their horse and jockey and so on.
The Duomo of Siena is an absolutely gorgeous building of striped marble, which can be seen rising above the stone and brick of the rest of the old town. Inside is just as impressive, with a very beautiful ceiling of a dark blue sky with golden stars, and an intricately carved thirteenth century pulpit. There is a Donatello bronze of John the Baptist and lots of other fantastic artwork. We spent along time in the Piccolomini library, which has dozens of huge choral music books, all on velum, with lovely calligraphy and tiny detailed paintings. But the real highlight are the huge panels on the walls, with the most gorgeous paintings by Pinturicchio, telling the story of Piccolomini's life.
The crypt under the alter was also incredible – it was only discovered in 1999, when many tonnes of 13th century rubble was removed, to reveal walls covered in frescoes. They looked very early and simple compared with the Renaissance works upstairs, but amazing nonetheless.
Next we went to visit St Catherine, who is a major saint in Italy. She was born and lived right in the centre of Siena. She was a very dedicated activist, petitioning popes and political leaders for all sorts of causes. Her family home has been made into a sanctuary, and is right where the Noble Contrada of the Oca (Goose) has its headquarters. Strapping young men were pulling on their red and green costumes amid huge excitement – we could see them in a third story across the street from the Casa di Santa Caterina.
Catherine had worshipped at the nearby Domenican cathedral, which now has a chapel dedicated to her, and many paintings of her. Although she is buried in Rome, parts of her are here in Siena. Too much information.
We spent the next couple of hours watching the various Contradas in their processions around the streets. Each is led by a drummer, followed by various pages and knights in armour. There was often someone looking grand on horseback, although we noticed that none of these people could actually ride – probably they are the heads of the Contrada. Everyone is in beautifully made, highly colourful medieval costume. The stars in each case were the two flag bearers, who continuously performed the most spectacular display with a pair of huge banner-like flags, which they waved, twirled, swept and leaped over, then flung into the air in perfect unison. Huge roars and applause fro the crowd, and they walked on and started again. This went on for many hours, with rival Contradas inevitably passing in the narrow streets. By now the streets were totally packed and the trattorias, pizzerias and gelaterias were doing a roaring trade.
It was also getting hot by three o'clock, but we were keen to get a good spot, so we battled through the crowds to get a spot near the railings in the Campo. We joined the locals who had been there since seven in the morning, and waited in the baking sun, while the Publico Assistienza di Siena (like St John's Ambulance) carted the wilting and fainting out on stretchers.
At about five, the fabulous swords-drawn, battle charge of the thirteen police horses happened again. More exciting when you knew what was going to happen, the second time. Lynda videoed it and tried not to swear so much in astonishment this time.
The Contrada entered the Campo in a continuous parade and progressed very slowly around the race track. The crowd cheered loudly every time a pair of flags went into the air. their were brass bands, mounted, costumed characters in huge numbers and awesome costumes. Four massive white Marrema oxen pulled a huge heavy cart, called the Carrocchio, carrying a host of trumpeters and the Pallium, the silk banner for which the Contrada are competing so fiercely.
As the time for the race drew near, all the flag bearers gathered on the track in front of us for one last enormous, dignified show. Wonderful. Directly across from us, under the facade of the Palazzo Publicco were stands filled with all the people in medieval costumes from each contrada. Hundreds of them, all sitting to watch the race, after their long day of parading.
Finally the time for the start of the race. The whole Campo became completely silent, as the starter announced the starting order. As each name was read out, there were huge gasps, or sighs, groans or hisses, depending on allegiances or the advantages or disadvantages of each position. Nine horses line up on the track behind a rope, with the tenth further back, on the outside. When the starter thinks each has an equal chance, he sends off the tenth with a run-up start and they all go.
We don't know if what followed is normal practice, but it was amazing. A big part of a rider's skill is displayed in the start, apparently. Our little book says, “Each rider uses all his skill to keep a good starting position for himself and to obstruct the others, seeking to guess the exact moment at which the field will be off.” In practice this means lots of jostling and whacking each other with whips.
It took ages for the horses to all get into position, and then lots of wheeling and turning, and no chance for the starter to send them off. It went on for ages, and then he sent them all away, and they circled on the track again. This happened several times, maybe to give the horses some relief from the stress? (doubt it) Then everyone got exasperated, the crowd began to shout at the starter. There were several false starts, where the whole field took off, only to be stopped by a deafening cannon blast, followed by roars of disappointment from the crowd. They cantered a lap anyway, and tried to line -up again. This happened three times, with riders coming off each time (remember they are bareback). The tension was incredible, with the silence of anticipation giving way to murmurs, then grumbles, then screams of frustration. A Sardinian bloke threatened to kill the arrogant young locals if they didn't get off the fence, and we all nearly joined him!
The sun went down, and the lights came on in the palzzos, an hour and half had gone by.
When the race finally began, the relief was immense. We all rushed to the rails to see the horses flash by, only a metre or two away. They had three laps of about 500 metres to run, and it was beyond exciting. The riders all stayed on, and had no time for thrashing each other, any more. They sat so well, as they flat-out galloped around the sloping, packed earth track, dodging ancient buildings and negotiating hair-raisingly tight corners. On the last lap, the Aquila rider tried to take the worst corner too tightly, and bumped something, lost balanced and was flung into the wall. The triumphant Contrada[/] of the [i]Civetta (the owl) went insane, as their rider cross the finish line and everyone jumped the fence to flood the track. As the madness swarmed and trumpets blew, banners waved, we climbed up into thee stands and watched, exhausted, for half an hour or so, before heading out to find some food.
We got terribly and completely lost, wandered the territories of some very dejected communities, sitting on chairs in groups on the streets, talking about missed chances an the failings of the starter.
We also crossed paths with the Civetta mob, deliriously and probably dangerously happy, carrying their jockey on their shoulders, singing loudly and waving flags, to the beat of many not so well disciplined drummers. It was just like an ill-disciplined bunch of soldiers returning from war in a crazy state of mind.
We eventually found a place to eat and had a delicious lasagne with eggplant, then got more lost, and finally staggered home.
There are more photos from Siena in the photo gallery for Italy: http://www.travellerspoint.com/photos/gallery/users/hazelnutty/countries/Italy/
15 August: Siena (from Lynda)
We are in Siena for a couple of days, in between working at a sheep farm in Umbria, and a goat place at Greve in Chianti in Tuscany. Getting here was a long, hot adventure, because it was a national holiday yesterday, and no buses were operating. At first we were stuck in Valfabbrica for nearly two hours, then Maria-Antoinetta, Pasqale's sister, came and saved us, and drove us to Perugia. After all sorts of attempts to get to Siena, we finally got a train to Florence, and another here, which took four hours – the bus we had planned to catch was only one and a half hours. So, we got here at about 4 o'clock, to the amazing Camping Colleverde Siena. It's a very fancy camping ground, and we have a great little cabin, with a bathroom. The place is completely full, as is every other accommodation in town and for miles around, because this weekend is Il Palio - the Palio di Siena.
It's the 600 year-old traditional competition between the guilds of the ancient city of Siena. The main event is an insane horse race around the Campo, the big shell-shaped piazza in the centre of the town. We are very excited to be here, and if last night was anything to go by, today should be fantastic.
Palio is the name given in Italy to an annual athletic contest, very often of a historical character, pitting the neighbourhoods of a town or the hamlets of a commune against each other.
This horse race is nuts – you can read about it on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palio_di_Siena
The final practice race for the Palio
The city of Siena is a very well-preserved old hill-top town with endless curving narrow streets, with palazzos and other grand buildings them. it is very compact, within it's walls, which were used to defend the city in centuries of battles with Florence. The town itself is also strongly divided, into the guilds, or Contrada which are its 16 neighbourhoods.
Each Contrada is represented by a colour, a flag, an animal emblem, songs and all sorts of other traditions. They are fiercely competitive, as we saw when hundreds of people proudly marched through the laneways and took up their positions around the campo, singing loudly and with faces full of pride and at times, aggression towards other groups.
It was amazing to wander in and out of the boundaries of the different Contradas – beautiful banners marking each area. The guild symbols are fantastic, there is an elephant, an owl, a dolphin, a dragon, a turtle, a unicorn, the tower, the woodland, the shell, and even a caterpillar and a snail. The banners are very beautiful, and everyone wears a large silk scarf with its design tied loosely around their shoulders, to indicate their allegiance – a very brave thing to do, considering the punch-ups that happen every year. The build-up, even for the practice, was massive. The Campo, an enormous arena, which slopes down to the base of the tower, was completely packed. Must have been tens of thousands of people. Mostly locals, but also heaps of visitors from all over the world.
Stands of seating were in packed with locals and others who could afford a ticket – they start at 250 Euros. Hundreds of children in each Contrada formed very colourful, boisterous blocks – singing like crazy.
The police formed a line and walked around the sand track that runs around the perimeter, clearing people off it. They were followed by sweepers with big birch brooms. Thirteen police horses, with riders in gorgeous blue and red costumes rode into the campo, led by a single horse, then the twelve in formation behind. They trotted a very disciplined lap, then the riders drew swords, pointed them forwards, stood in their stirrups and galloped a full- blooded charge around the track. We could not believe it.
Next came the Palio horses, for their practice. They are beautiful thoroughbred types, and were mostly out of their trees. The jockeys ride bare back, in medieval costumes, and the horses wear matching bridles and decorations. Of course it took ages to get them to line up, and then within half a lap, two riders were off. The practice then became a sedate canter as the two loose horses lapped the field, creating havoc. It was all over in a couple of minutes, and a cannon blast prompted everyone to jump the fences and swamp their horse, burst into song, and eventually leave the campo. Crazy. Can't wait for the real thing. As Maria-Antoinetta said, “I can't go to the Palio – I think I will have a heart attack”. Now we now exactly what she means.
As we wandered back through town, crowds gathered to watch reruns on television in every bar and restaurant. We made slow progress, because every little piazza was closed, and gorgeously set for a huge dinner for one of the Contradas, with waiters ready to serve a banquet on long tables. They looked lovely, with their banners and colours against the stone of the old buildings, all glowing in the evening sunlight.