Naomi's Italian Diary, Part 2

Naomi's Italian Diary
Part 2

Siena: Run-up to the Palio


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1 July -- San Gimignano and Siena: I headed for Siena early in the morning. I am so excited to go to this place that I have heard so many things about. I can't wait to see what the Palio is all about. When I was a child, I had read a book about a horse race in Italy, where horses from different parts of the town compete against each other. It sounded so exciting, that since that time (nearly 20 years ago) I have dreamed of going to Italy to see that race. Now I can finally make that long-ago dream come true!

On the bus I met two English guys from the hostel and we all went together. Siena is really a place with a definite character, a feeling, a personality which is evident the moment you arrive. Even if it had not been for the Palio, it would be the same! Now I know the origin of the Siena-colored crayon! Just as in San Gimignano, when you arrive in the center of town your senses are exposed to this color. Everywhere is the same color, three stories high. The archways, the bricks in the streets, it's all made of these same bricks made from this earth of Toscana -- a beautiful rich brown, almost like milk chocolate. Every street is strung with banners of the contrada: Civetta (owl), Lupa (wolf) Tartuga (tortoise) and so on. Beautiful, clean streets. People all over are wearing the scarves of their contrada. Some groups walk up and down the streets singing the contrada song. For some strange reason they all seem to have the same tune, so only the words are different. Everyone seems to be so happy and smiling and above all very excited!!

We walk through the streets, absorbing the atmosphere which is thick with excitement. We visited the Duomo which is made out of marble in stripes of white and dark green or black. Up to now I had seen only churches of one solid color or with mosaics or some pictures painted on the outside (like San Marco's in Venezia). This one is beautiful, especially because it is so different. I would see a similar style in other cities, but this was the first. Inside was large and dark with a beautiful blue ceiling painted with golden stars. The floor was marble. There are a series of marble pictures inlaid into the floor which are covered and uncovered in rotation in order to protect them. Though on close inspection they appeared quite worn, the overall effect was one of beauty. On one wall was a sort of shrine to people who had died, hung with photographs, flowers, and an odd assortment of their belongings. There were several motorcycle helmets of people who had died, I assumed, in a crash. It was spooky looking at these things.

After the Duomo, I went to the museum in the Palazzo Pubblico, which was absolutely amazing. There were several rooms of Sienese art, though I don't claim to be able to distinguish this pre-Renaissance art from the Umbrian or other schools. The best parts were the frescoes, which were large, gilded and amazingly detailed. There were two in one room entitled "The Allegory of Good and Bad Government," which attempted to depict the results of each. There was also some furniture and other items from daily life, but in general the museum was an excellent example of a palazzo (palace) with decorative arts spanning many centuries. The palazzo has a tower called Torre di Mangia ("eating tower," loose translation) because legend has it that the watchman used to eat a big lunch and then fall asleep (or something like that).

The palazzo is a beautiful building on a beautiful piazza called the Piazza del Campo which is made of pieces of an odd trapezoid-shape of uneven size, somewhat similar to pieces of a pie. The shape of the piazza (where the Palio is run) makes it even more difficult for the race because of the difficult shape of the turns. A track has been laid down all around the central piazza, in what would be the road -- packed down dirt just like a dirt racetrack. Bleachers have been set up all around the piazza. This evening there is a prova -- test race -- and we decided to stay for that before heading back to San Gimignano.

People are all dressed up in the colors of their contrada, streaming into the piazza for the race, singing. We decided to wander the streets and watch the horses being led to the race by the residents of each contrada. We followed the horses to the piazza and entered just as the gates were being closed, preventing more people from coming into the piazza. The police start to clear people off of the track. There are so many different kinds of police in Italy, and there are so many of them here, for this race! Eventually I will have to have someone explain all the types to me!

After the track is cleared, mounted carabinieri -- military police -- ride around the track twice, once slowly, the second time as if running a race of their own, very fast! Then the horses to run come out on the track and line up near the entrance, very near where we were standing. They start, race around the piazza twice. Once it is clear which horse has won, the other riders pull their horses up, to keep them from getting hurt before the main event tomorrow. Onda -- the wave -- won this race with a beautiful dapple grey mare. Onda's colors are blue and white which looked really stunning on their horse. Their street decorations were really interesting, too -- fish-shaped lanterns along the main street, with the light bulbs coming out of their mouths!

After the prova, we ran to catch the last bus back to San Gimignano and the youth hostel. Back at the hostel, we were treated to a performance by the morris dancers and the step dancers. It turned into a great party, but I knew I could not stay up too late, as I have to depart early for Siena tomorrow for the main event: The Palio!

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All text and photographs Copyright 1995-2001 Naomi S. Smith