Thursday, 2 July 2009

Winning at the Palio

A bonus to our trip to Siena was that it coincided with the annual running of the famous ‘Palio’ horse race that is run in the Piazza Il Campo. This traditional event attracts thousands of tourists from around the world to witness the colourful festivities that culminate in the big race. During the days before, the atmosphere continues to build with decorative banners adorning the narrow lanes, identifying the 17 distinct areas within the city, which are referred to as a ‘contrada’. Each contrada has it’s own distinctive colour combination and animal symbol that are worn by the bare back riders. The Palio is steeped in tradition which is at times confusing to the outsider, but clearly the event is taken very seriously by the locals who continue to contribute money throughout the year to procure the best horse and the best rider for the event. As a tourist, you have no choice but to get involved by selecting a contrada to support and buy a coloured scarf to represent the horse you will be cheering on during the race. Jules had taken a liking to the ‘Contrada della Tartuca’, which is represented by the tortoise. She had figured that with a mascot like that, they probably needed all the support they could muster. On the big day we headed toward the piazza to the droning of the tower bell. In the laneways, each contrada had begun their own procession that consisted of a range of characters in colourful costumes and even suits of armour, marching along on foot and on horseback. Leading the way were flag bearers who spasmodically stopped to throw their flags high into the air receiving applause from the crowd as they caught them upon there descent. As they marched, they were followed by an ever growing group of supporters, each wearing the appropriate contrada scarf. Eventually each group filed into the piazza for a lengthy grand procession accompanied by the deafening sound of trumpets. After several hours of posturing, the horses and riders appeared on the track and it first appears that the race would be run and won in minutes…not so. It would in fact be quite a while before the actual race would begin. There would be several hours of jockeying for position, bargaining amongst themselves (riders have been known to be bought off at the start line by competitors), hitting each other with their whips, blocking the start and enduring numerous false starts before it would begin. As a result of the numerous delays, the day was slowly starting to turn to night and it was 9.00pm before the shot gun blast could be heard around the piazza and the actual race is underway. After two furious laps around the piazza, it is all over and to our amazement Tartuca was the victor! We had backed the winner and we were as just excited as the locals, jumping up and down and waving our scarf. The crowd quickly flocked onto the clay track to surround the winning rider and lifting him high onto their shoulders. Other supporters were clearly not happy, claiming yet another false start , but it was official, the tortoise would be awarded with the coveted painted silk banner. Celebrations would continue well into the night, but for us, after several hours in the hot sun, reflecting on the victory over a glass of red wine in our little farm house would be quite enough.

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