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The Palio in Siena Italy

My usual method of planning a trip is to make absolutely no reservations and simply pick a few things that I must do while I am in the area that I am going to. For my European two month train journey with a rag tag bunch of friends, this list included; visit Rikard in Sweden, start in England, run with the bulls, try and goto the olympics in Greece, stay with friends in X, Y, and Z. This is always a loose list and liable to change. A last minute addition to this list came from a long lost friend from high school who randomly got a hold of me and suggested I visit her in Siena Italy and if possible, arrive on these specific dates to watch the Palio. I had no idea what the Palio was, but it was a welcome respite to stay with someone after being in hostels for ages so in a very warm August, we arrived in Siena.

Siena Italy is in the Northern center of Italy and is surrounded by some absolutely fantastic country side with slow undulating hills with various shades of fields painting them in the sweltering sun. The city is actually quite large but it is split into an old and new part and if you never left the old part, you would have no idea that this is actually a full blown modern city. The old part of town is surrounded by this huge wall with very narrow entry ways and the roads can only just allow a taxi to squeeze by and I don’t think that is true for all the roads. Most people got around on bicycle or mopeds. The buildings were incredibly old and reminded you of how short people were in the past. You could smell magical smells of dough in the early mornings as the bakers did their thing. I suggest climbing to the top of the clock tower near the main square to get a good feel for where you are. Or read for the full break down.

It was here that I learned that I really enjoy gnocchi and pesto. It was also here that I learned that pesto is made from pine nuts. If you plan on being my arch nemesis, it is easy to battle me. I am and allergic to nuts. Just dip my fingernails in nuts and I will likely be slowed down at some point. But beware future arch nemesi, I am more wiley than a bucket full of ferrets. But never mind that…

The true reason we were here, other than to thank Jenny for her generosity and great cooking, was the Palio. The Palio is an infamous bare back horse race held twice a year in this picturesque med evil town. Let me try and give you the low down. The old town is broken up into 18 neighborhoods named after interesting things such as unicorns or dragons. Each neighborhood is intensely passionate about itself and will do just about anything to win one of these races. Each neighborhood has a scarf and colors that are proudly worn by the inhabitants and as you walk around you can see these hanging from windows or around peoples heads and bodies. If you do not have their gear on, then you really are not supposed to talk with these people during this time of year. In true sleazy Italian style, bribing is openly encouraged. One neighborhood may bribe a rider from another neighborhood to take a fall in the second lap but then another neighborhood might want him to go down in the first lap and the neighborhood of the guy who is supposed to fall will then bribe another neighborhood to make it seem that he made their rider fall so they can collect on the sympathy vote. It gets sort of complicated but only a few privileged elite members of the neighborhoods really know what is going on. I imagine something very godfather-ish. On top of all that, there is the economic incentive to win or lose. There are 18 neighborhoods but not all will be allowed to participate. If a neighborhood does not participate in one race, then they are automatically allowed entry into the next race. The winning neighborhood will tend to be the most broke neighborhood by the time the next race comes around since they have spent all their winnings and saved money on celebrating every SINGLE day until the next race. This celebration tends to be a drum line that walks the narrow echo-y streets chanting their neighborhood name and sayings just to remind everyone what happened. The losing neighborhood will tend to be a lot richer by the time the next race rolls around since they had to do no such partying. So the strategies are numerous and complex but in the end, it can be very difficult to control because this is how the race went.

We left Jenny’s with plenty of time to purchase wine before we approached the piaza del campo, the main square where the race was being held. Of course we thought it was a good idea to buy the 1.5 liter bottles. With our patriotic head scarves on, we ventured into the piaza. This place is not all that big, about the size of a track field and a little more oblong. One side is probably 30 feet above the opposite side so both short ends are on a slope. One of the short ends, on the downhill, was particularly sharp. The track was filled with some special dirt that was imported from some remote region and carried by one armed girls who lacked the ability to smile. The dirt was a big deal it seemed and they were constantly watering it. There were at least 10,000 people in this place and it was tough to move. I drank half my bottle and realized I needed to pee but there was no where to go. I contemplated sacrificing the rest of my wine and peeing in the bottle, but I opted to act like I was tying my shoelace and pee on the ground.

The format of the race is 3 laps. Do whatever it takes to get around. The crowd some how knew something was going to happen and it got quiet. Then a gunshot and the horses were off with riders barely hanging on to their manes. The riders enter the downhill corner and it is too tight and one of the horses gets slammed into the guard railing with the rider on top getting hurled forward and the horse eventually coming to a rest on top of one of his legs. The rest of the pack continued around the course and our neighborhood was immediately in the back and was obviously out of the competition. The horse that had hit the railing was convulsing in a very unnatural way as the rider was desperately trying to dislodge his leg from underneath it before the riders came back around. Each lap only took about 30 seconds meaning this race was done in less than 2 minutes, quite the build up for this sort of climax! The man finally gets out from under the horse with some help from the spectators just as the pack approaches. The lead horse runs directly over this convulsing horse and after the other horses had passed, the convulsing horse was convulsing no more and there was a sudden sweeping feeling of death that had blanketed the crowd. The third lap went without a hitch and I don’t remember who won, but lets just say it was the dragons.

Immediately, this absolutely enormous white blanket came out and covered a quarter of the piaza where the horse had been. This was to cover up whatever activity was required to drag 2000 pounds of muscle on the cobblestone streets. I envisioned a scene like at the end of braveheart. The horses were more respected than the riders. A horse cannot be bought and a lot of time and money would have been invested into this horse through out the year. The dragons could not be swayed, however, and their partying started immediately. We worked our way back to the house and peed several times. That night we managed to sneak our way into the dragon celebration party. But Phil fucked htis up as he allowed his hidden unicorn bandana to be seen. We were immediately kicked out however I did drink quite a lot. That situation reminded me of a western movie when you walk in and you know that there are many eyes on you just waiting for a reason to kick you out because they knew that we were not part of this tiny little neighborhood.

An extremely memorable event and should be on every adventurers list of things to do. From what I understand, it is incredibly difficult and expensive to acquire lodging so think ahead or make friends or just be willing to rough it you lazy sod.

Not sure where my pictures are for this event but this picture is of me wearing the scarf of the unicorns which was our very manly neighborhood.


Published inLukeTraveling