We’re all about side trips and spontaneity here, and just as we weren’t expecting to go to Stuttgart after Poland, we sure weren’t expecting to find ourselves in Siena while in Italy!
After a much quieter than expected day in the little Veneto town of Cornuda, Italy, finding ourselves without a place to sleep, and with much less family outings to go to than expected, Moreno and I were lamenting about what a shame it is to be so close to our good friend Giacomo and yet to not be able to visit him. That was when Moreno suggested we try to catch him wherever he was, and so, four hours later, we found ourselves bound for the hilltop walled city of Siena.
Siena lies 80km south of Florence, it’s biggest rival. In 1348, the Black Death killed about 60% of the town’s population, and the city never quite recovered, losing all hope of regaining prominence. Siena thus remained submerged in its medieval history, and in the 1960’s was rediscovered by tourists who found it almost completely preserved, its people devoted to their culture and traditions to this day.
The Palio is perhaps the greatest of these traditions. In the simplest terms, the event is a 90 second horse race for a banner (note the hoof prints in the title image); in more complex terms it is what those true to Siena live for.
Siena is divided up into 17 Contrade (districts), each with their own flag, colours, church and animal. Twice a year (July 2 and August 16 ), ten jockeys and horses representing the selected Contrade race to win the Palio – a banner of painted silk uniquely painted each year which features the Virgin Mary and Child.
The winning contrada is able to hang the Palio in their church, and for months on afterwards celebrate the fact that they won. They are also able to celebrate that their rivals did not – rivalry is still strong between the Contrade, and acts such as shoving, hitting, and hampering horses in order to win are not forbidden. In fact, only nine horses raced this August, as one fell ill shortly before the race in what was rumoured (and accepted) as an act of sabotage.
The Victory of the Owl
Though we missed the race, Moreno and I were there to witness a small part of the Victory Parade of the winning Contrada – the Civetta, or Little Owl. The residents of the Civetta district were there to support their Contrada wearing scarves matching their Contrada’s flag. Those more directly involved wore full costumes as they whistled or drummed along with the parade as it came down the alleys, preceding the winning horse and, more importantly, the Palio which was being paraded through the town.
We did eventually have a delicious lunch in some quaintly chaotic hole in the wall trattoria – a plato misti (mixed plate) featuring a sampling of traditional and featured dishes – but not before taking in the rest of Siena as well: a must if you’re anywhere in central Italy (or elsewhere)!