Naomi's Italian Diary, Part 6

Naomi's Italian Diary
Part 6

Siena: The Running of the Palio!!
(at last)


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3 July By the time we arrived at the piazza all the good spots had been taken and people were sitting on the fence, so I could not even get a place on the rail so I could take photos! It was especially disappointing since I had had such a close spot yesterday! In the end a nice man said we could share his spot along the fence and he even held me to balance while I took pictures! There was no trouble with Chiocciola this time. In fact, I heard later that his jockey had been given a stern talking to (whatever that means in the Palio) and that the contrada was disqualified from running next year due to bad conduct!

The race was amazing! Complete chaos! First, there was a false start and the horses acutally did a full circuit before returning to the ropes. The actual race went off almost before I could realize. It was difficult to tell who was winning but the Sienese seemed to have no trouble. From where we were standing, due to the construction of the piazza, we could actually see the whole track, then I ran back to the rail as the horses thundered by twice. On the second lap, the horses came crashing around the sharpest turn in front of the Palazzo Pubblico, right in front of where I was standing! The wall there is padded with mattresses because it is the most dangerous. I saw a few horses crash into it! Onda's horse lost her rider there and was running on three legs, one obviously broken after hitting the wall. [It doesn't matter whether the jockey is still on or not at the finish, whichever horse crosses the line first wins.]

It was all over almost as fast as it had begun. There was so much screaming and shouting; a girl in front of me fainted and fell off the fence, knocking her head. People everywhere were crying (except for those from the victorious contrada of -- TARTUGA!!!!) or shouting. A parade formed on the track, made up of the two flag wavers from each contrada (back in costumes from yesterday) to escort the Palio back to Tartuga. The Palio itself, for which the race is named, is actually just a blue banner with a painting of the Madonna on it. I think originally the banner was awarded to the victorious contrada as a blessing from Mary.

We followed the procession, and passed it on my way to Tartuga. People were streaming around in the main street of Tartuga and we waited for the winning horse and the Palio to return, which they did accompanied by forty or fifty smaller Tartuga banners, the bearers filed down the street, as well as numerous banners of the other contrade, all escorting the winner home. Before the horse entered the contrada, he is led to drink out of the main fountain and the edge of the contrada territory. People who lived along the street were had casks of wine, from which they were pouring glasses and handing them out their windows to people in the street! It was a huge party, and everyone was invited. Catherine had said the people would probably celebrate for three or four days, almost non-stop. I looked for her in the streets, but could not find her.

The Palio was paraded around the streets, and finally came to rest, on display in the Tartuga church. People were coming up to it and kissing it, especially young people, for whom it was the first Palio they had won in their lives. The banner itself looked brand new to me, and I was told that a new one is made for each race and that each contrada will display the banners from all the races they have won, in a special room; some are hundreds of years old.

Unfortunately, the others from the youth hostel wanted to go back fairly early, even though we could have stayed dancing, drinking, eating and partying with the victors all night. I went along with them, somewhat reluctantly, but realized that it would not have been that much fun on my own. I really did want to stay, and after so much effort to see the race, finally, it seemed anticlimactic to have to leave before the main celebrations and the feast. I was quite disappointed to leave, but I suppose I can always come back here for another Palio, another year.

However, after dreaming about this race, this town, this experience for so long, I felt somewhat let down by the whole thing. Not just having to come back the following day and losing my excellent vantage point, or even leaving the festivities early. I saw, finally, how cruel the race really is. In the end, three horses died: one from a heart attack brought on by drugging, two from injuries sustained during the race itself. The horses are not important in this contest, they are only the means to the victory -- victory at any cost. However, I am not so sure that the people of Siena see it this way.

To be continued....
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All text and photographs Copyright 1995 Naomi S. Smith