To travel to Siena from England is not straightforward.
Flights are from Gatwick, and if you’re travelling with BA then the flight is at 11.50am. I didn’t fancy fighting M25 traffic on a Monday morning, so a friend of mine who lives near the airport (and who happens to live with my favourite cat) said I could stay with her Sunday night. Even on a Sunday afternoon the M25 was still slow going, but I arrived around 5pm and we enjoyed talk, a bottle of wine, and her cat even deigned to sniff my hand. (Yes, my love is unreciprocated. It’s very sad, and one day I’ll write a poem about it.)
So I was able to get up at a civilised time and have breakfast and coffee before heading off. By 10am I was through security and enjoying a bacon sandwich. (I was a vegetarian for three years, so I have a lot of bacon to catch up on.) Boarded plane, stuffed camera backpack into overhead bin, and thought I could relax. Then the unwelcome news that there were problems at Pisa airport. Instead of leaving at 11.50am, it might not be until 2pm. Fortunately (!) we were into the air at 12.50pm. I was fretting because I wanted to catch the 4.15pm bus to Florence (where I would have to change buses to get to Siena). The next one wasn’t until 6.30pm.
We landed at 3.40pm. My bag was of course one of the last to emerge at baggage claim. But I managed to get onto the bus with two minutes to spare. And then it was ten minutes late departing. I found four Brits also headed to Siena, so we agreed to pool our ignorance when it came time to change buses in Florence.
It’s a fact. Whenever I go on holiday, I ended up talking to Germans. When I transversed the Northwest Passage, there were so many Germans on the ship that announcements were made in German and in English. On an internal flight in Peru I was seated next to two German men. The coach trip around New Zealand had a large number of German speakers, and I ended sharing rooms with them. So, on the bus to Florence, of course my seat mate was a woman who grew up in Berlin. Berlin is the German accent I know best, as that is the accent of both my grandmother and mother. I always find it amazing that I can go long stretches of time without speaking German (18 months this time), but I immediately comprehend the language when it’s spoken to me. I did start to learn before I was four years old. Whereas the languages I learnt as an adult (Latin, Welsh, New Testament Greek) have faded badly. The woman said my German in return was quite good (which amazes me even more).
She warned me that changing buses wouldn’t be straightforward. Usually the bus stops at the bus station, and you can easily change to the bus to Siena. But due to some road works, we’d be dropped off by the train station. Which we were, with very little instruction about what to do next. I found an Italian woman who spoke little English was also Siena bound. So us five Brits kept to the Italian woman (who asked for directions from others several times). It was a hot and sweaty slog, and I’m not certain whether I have to do it in reverse when I leave!
So we climbed onto the 6.10pm to Siena, arriving 7.25pm. Then my next challenge. I’m staying in the spare room which a couple, who live in Siena, rent out. Normally it’s quite easy to get to. You cross the Piazza del Campo to get to the correct street. But, of course, the Piazza was shut for the first of the trial races for the Palio. So I had to go all around the Piazza. I asked for directions (which were sometimes contradictory) and I used the map function on my iPhone. Going around meant going downhill, which then entailed going back uphill. Up and down steps as well.
Finally reached the apartment building 8.10pm. My hosts live on the top floor, so I dragged my case up three sets of stairs. Then he came down to help up the final flight. By this time I realised that I was less than fragrant…
I was shown to my room. What a view! He lectures in philosophy at the University of Siena. She teaches drama, and now works mostly one to one with actors. I took a shower and then they insisted that I join them for supper and wine. They are both vegetarians, converted by their two sons. We put the world to rights, of course. He’s Italian, she’s French, but their English is pretty good.
As we ate, we heard a very noisy parade go by. Even as I type, at 10pm, you can hear the celebrations going on. I can only describe as what you might hear at a football or rugby match, but imagine this going on throughout the city.
I’ve managed to make contact with the person from whom I’m buying tickets to the Palio. We’re working out a time and place tomorrow for me to pay for the tickets and to have them handed over. From what I saw during my trek through Siena, people do throw themselves into this event. Although not my hosts. Neither of them were born here, and they find it just a bit trying.
Singing and shouting went on until well after 1am. But that wasn’t why I found it difficult to sleep. Excitement at finally being here, and some anxiety about making sure I got to the right places at the right times.
The first place and time was to collect my tickets for the various activities. To buy tickets to the trial races, the contrade dinners, and above all the Palio can be a bit challenging. I found someone, Jacopo, recommended by a number of independent websites, and back in January I’d contacted him and paid half of the costs. We met today at 11am outside a cafe. He took me a very quick walking tour to the various places I need to be over the next few days, and I think I’ll remember them all. I’m sitting in different places for each of the practice races and then for the Palio itself—my choice, as it’ll give me different angles on the action. I then handed over the cash for the final payment. No, you don’t want to ask how much. Just remember that I’ve been dreaming of seeing the Palio since I was twelve years old, so if you divide it out by the numbers of years I’ve waited it looks far more reasonable.
I meandered my way to the cathedral. Several young men from the Eagle contrada set up at a square and showed off their abilities with the banners, accompanied by another on drums. They didn’t ask for any money but seemed to simply do it out of pride for their contrada. I got a bit lost on the way to the cathedral, but it was an interesting lost.
When I did arrive at the cathedral, I found the options for payment/visits a bit confusing. Although all the notices were only in Italian, there was an official who spoke very good English and could explain it to you. So I bought the ticket which gives me three days to see the cathedral, the museums nearby, and took me on a tour to the upper levels of the cathedral.
I visited the ground floor first. I know it’s a beautiful building, but somehow it just didn’t move me. Perhaps Italian cathedrals are a bit too overblown for me. What did amuse me is that anyone (man or woman) whose shoulders weren’t covered had to take a flimsy white cloth to tie over their shoulders. Part of me wanted to insist that brides who get married at my church in wedding dresses which leave little to the imagination should wear one of these coverings. But another part of me wondered what sort of message this was sending people about the church—and about God. That you have to dress in a certain way to be welcomed?
The sign inside asking for ‘respect and silence’ was written in seven languages, of which I speak three. I read the German in German, the British English in English, and imagined a suitable accent for the version in American English. Couldn’t see any other difference between the British and American English. For those who are keeping score, the Italian was first, British English second, and the American English seventh down. Each had the appropriate country flag.
The upper level tour had many beautiful views through which we were sometimes hurried. I know full well why the photographs we normal tourists take never look as good as the ones on brochures. The ones in guide books were taken by photographers who were given time and a tripod. We have to hurry through, and tripods were not allowed (whether or not the tripod agreed to wear a covering over its shoulders).
The flat in which I’m staying, by the way, is only a three minute walk from the Piazza del Campo. I did go there first this morning, after the morning trial race, and watched as the track was watered down. This caused problems for a woman trying to cross whilst carrying a cake, so I took the cake off her while she got across the slippery surface. (Needless to say, I was wearing practical shoes, and she wasn’t.) Being close is what I wanted, and I should have an easy walk back to the bus station since the Palio should finish on Thursday.
It’s been another hot day, and after the cathedral I went back to the flat. I had a shower and worked on photos, as the evening trial race wouldn’t start until 7.45pm.
The noise started to build up as the time for the race approached. I packed up cameras and large lenses and headed over early. Jacopo had told me that I wouldn’t have a ticket, nor need one, for my seat at this race. He showed me where to go. The doorway was down a small side street just off the Piazza, and the door was open when I arrived. I went up two sets of steps, and the woman nodded at the name. By 7pm I was seated on the terrace of her flat. Her kitchen was behind me, and the door was open to a sitting room. It must cost a small fortune to rent a flat overlooking the Piazza, but I guess you can also make a small fortune selling seats on your terrace at Palio time.
I found myself seated next to two women from Texas who have been travelling through Europe for five weeks. They too had contacted Jacopo, and had tickets to various Palio events. The night before they had gone to a contrada dinner. ‘They were so welcoming, they adopted us,’ the woman said happily. They were able to buy the official contrada silk scarves, rather than the polyester copies sold in all the tourist shops.
We were behind the start line but in clear view of the San Martino bend, where many a jockey has been unseated. Did I mention that they ride bareback? There had been a tragedy the night before when one of the horses had broken a leg and had to be put down. There is a movement to stop the Palio, due to the injuries caused to horses, but that can be said of many horse events (I think of the accidents which occur in the British Grand National, for example).
We had a good view of a bleacher on which children, in their contrada's colours, were seated. From time to time one group of children would chant and point at the children of their enemy contrada. All but one contrada has at least one enemy, and this comes to the fore at Palio time. Hence a large police presence to break up any fights, between children of whatever age.
How shall I describe the atmosphere? Imagine going to a sports match to support your favourite team. Imagine that, in this particular match, they are facing their greatest rivals. Now imagine that this event isn’t just one team against another, but in effect ten teams competing against each other. Then you can imagine the shouts, the singing, the taunts.
The track was cleared, then walked by the officials. Then the horses came out. To my eye the jockeys look like they’re wearing bright pyjamas, but I plan never to say so publicly. The horses don’t come from Siena, and it’s rare that a jockey will either. Horses are assigned to a contrada by a draw which took place on the first night. The jockeys are hired by the contrada—which means they aren’t entirely trusted, and kept under guard in case another contrada tries to bribe them in order to influence the outcome of the race. The jockey can be changed up until the day of the Palio, but the horse cannot. And if a contrada’s horse is injured in one of the trial races, they cannot have another one. So the horses are also guarded, so that no other contrada can affect the horse either. I should point out that there’s no recorded incidence of a horse being bribed or injured by another contrada.
The horses are lined up at the start, the Mossa. Only ten of the seventeen contrade have a horse in any given Palio. Nine line up a rope, and the jockey of the tenth (also drawn by lot) decides when the race will start. He holds back from the rest, and when he decides its time, he rushes his horse at the start. The rope is dropped, and off they go. And there is strategy involved in this as well. The starter jockey often has orders to ensure that the horse of a particular contrada is in a bad position before he starts the race.
I don’t know about orders this time, but the start was delayed by fifteen minutes. The horses lined up, didn’t start, came back out to pace in a circle, lined up again, didn’t start… Last year one Palio started 45 minutes late. But they were off by 8pm. And you could see that it was a trial race. Jockeys are more interested in getting used to their horse and the track than winning. A couple raced, but a number sauntered along.
When the saunter was over a cannon was fired and people churned onto the track. Contrade immediately claimed their jockey and their horse. And in one area a fist fight broke out. But eventually the horses were led away.
I hurried back to the flat to drop off my camera equipment, having decided only to take my compact camera to the dinner. I had a ticket for the Torre (Tower) contrada. Jacopo had pointed the street down which it would be, and I followed the people wearing the colours of Torre. By happy chance one of my shirts is nearly the same burgundy as theirs.
The tables and chairs were spread down the street. Paper tablecloths had been unrolled across the tables. Seems the practice is that you keep your seat by writing your name on the tablecloth. I found a free chair, and waited in vain to be adopted. Never happened. Perhaps women from Texas have an edge over women from Britain.
People were going to a nearby bar (‘Societe Elefante’—the symbol for Torre is an elephant with a tower on its back) and coming back with something pinkish to drink. When I was around seven years old I had a bout of pneumonia, and the liquid anti-biotic fed to me was pink and supposedly cherry flavoured. This has left me with a life-long aversion to anything vaguely pink and/or artificially cherry flavoured. But I did decided to try the drink. It was mixed into a metal bowl before being spooned into plastic cups, and looked to be a mixture of prosecco, tonic water, and some red-tinged spirit. It was very drinkable and not cherry flavoured at all.
The kitchens for the meal were behind me. I wondered how several hundred people were to be fed. Excitement built as first water and then red wine appeared on the tables. The red was labelled with ‘Societe Elefante’, and had no details regarding vintage or varietal. Precisely the rough sort of red which can give me a nasty hangover. I promised myself to take it easy. I also enjoyed watching the many kids running around the water fountain and trying to splash each other from water bottles.
The first course was ready—pasta in a tomato sauce, served in plastic bowls. I soon realised that sitting near the kitchen brought entertainment in the form of many handsome young Italian men coming to collect portions to be delivered to the tables. And I said handsome even before I’d had many glasses of wine. Bread came next. It was the type of strong white bread that fights back when you try to eat it. Then, at 11pm, the main course. A thin slice of cold beef in a white sauce, accompanied by a form of potato salad. By this time, although I’d not been adopted, the chap sitting nearby had taken a liking to my liking of wine and would wink at me when he refilled my plastic cup.
I resolutely went onto water, and then at 11.30pm decided not to wait and see if there were any pudding. I wandered over to the bar looking for the toilets. A number of young women were clattering down the stairs to the lower level. I followed them, only to discover that they were about to start some meeting. Many blank looks thrown my way. I definitely did not belong there. I managed to find the (unmarked) toilets, then returned to the flat. Couldn’t find a light switch for the stairs, but an iPhone does make a good torch!
To my great relief and slight surprise I woke up clear headed. I had arranged to go to the morning trial race. Jacopo had shown me the restaurant to which I was report by 8.45am, and even gave me one of their business cards to remove all doubt. The idea was that I would take photos from their first floor window (second floor for my American English readers). At 8.30am I was at the Piazza, and watched several of the horses brought in from their stables (followed by members of their contrada). At 8.40am I began an unsuccessful attempt to find someone to open the restaurant door. This was not a comfortable place to be, as I was standing underneath the bleachers. Dirt scraped off shoes to land on my head, and at one point several people decided to drop their empty water bottles through the gaps.
At 8.50am I realised that I wasn’t going to get to my paid slot at a restaurant window. It’s at times like these that I recall the wise words of that great philosopher Mick Jagger. ‘You can’t always get what you want.’ So I abandoned my post. I tried to blag my way onto one of the bleachers nearby, but without luck. Maybe I need to cultivate a Texan accent.
So I went into the main square, and managed to get a good spot near the San Martino bend. I used a different camera and settings than last night. As much as I’d like all photos to turn out great, the main reason for attending the trial races was to experiment so that I’m ready for the Palio itself. After the race (which again some jockeys took more seriously than others) I headed back to the flat. I spent several hours processing photos and checking all the settings.
Around 2pm I headed out. I bought a sandwich and found that the cathedral is quite near to the Piazza. Don’t know how I managed to get so lost yesterday! I used my entry ticket to visit the baptistry and the undercroft, before going on to the museum and climbing a set of narrow steps to reach a view point at the top. Getting up anything tall in Europe always means climbing up steps, unlike in the USA where buildings were built in the days of lifts.
At the museum I suddenly wished I had someone alongside me. There were drawings of the intricate floor inlays set into the cathedral, and I wanted to show off my ability to recognise the various stories. ‘Oh, that’s Absalom, caught by his hair and then getting killed by Joab.’ ‘That one? Elijah calling fire from heaven to show the prophets of Baal who worships the one true God.’ Oh, well, maybe it’s just as well. My ego probably doesn’t need stroking.
My hosts greeted my return to the flat. He has never climbed up to the viewpoint, as he has a fear of heights. So of course I showed them both the video from my tandem skydive in New Zealand. Well, he declared, if he ever goes to New Zealand then maybe he’ll do a skydive. That’s his excuse out of doing one any closer to home, I suspect.
At 7pm I was out again. I had booked a ticket for the evening race, the ‘dress rehearsal’. A number of us waited outside some impressive wooden doors. When Jacopo came we were permitted inside. (He refunded my money for the position I was unable to access this morning.) We walked through an amazing flat, and some sort of official looking man (butler?) hovered around, keeping an eye on us. I shared a window with a couple from Australia, who knew very little about the Palio. We were above and behind the Mossa, the starting area. I explained bits to the couple, pointing out the children chanting their war songs from their own bleachers, the police and then the officials checking the track, and so on. (Hey, I’m an old hand at this.)
We had a thrilling march and then charge past by men in military costume mounted on some beautiful horses. For the charge they drew their swords, and the crowd roared their approval.
Then the jockeys and horses came out and went to the Mossa. From our window we could see all the jostling. One horse and rider seemed to be perpetually forced out of the line by the other riders. And there were three false starts. The nine horses set off before the tenth actually crossed his start line. By the time the trial race got underway, only one jockey pushed his horse into a gallop around the track. The rest held theirs back, conserving their strength. I think it was all gamesmanship by the tenth rider, tiring out his rivals on purpose.
I had a ticket to the dinner with the Unicorn contrada. Jacopo’s instructions were, ‘Follow the people wearing the scarves of that contrada to find the area for the dinner.’ I did my best, although there were scarves from other contrada going in the same direction. But each contrada has banners up for its area, so I kept to Unicorn streets did find the area. A barrier had been put up at the street, but I showed my ticket to the man on guard and he let me in.
We had been told that the dinner started around 8.30pm. To my amusement the only people at their tables were English speaking. The tourists arrived on time, the Italians knew everything wouldn’t happen until much later. This was a much posher affair. White linen cloths on the table, metal cutlery, glasses for the water and wine. Assigned seating. I found my seat, then went exploring, and to my great joy I was able to find someone from whom I could buy the official contrada scarf. The design is different from the polyester ones sold in the tourist shops, I was able to establish later. I wonder if the contrada insist that the imitation ones aren’t the same as the official ones?
The tables started to fill, and my table mates and I got to know each other. I was seated near a mixture of Australians and Americans. To them I sounded British. I warned them that we probably wouldn’t get our main course until 11pm. And I was wrong. It was more around 11.30pm. Before the food arrived the jockey was paraded down the street, preceded by a drummer and two banner wavers. A song was played over loudspeakers. I didn’t understand a word, but between that and the drums it was all rather thrilling.
We had a nice starter, an intriguing pasta dish, and then a slice of pork in a sauce along with vegetables. Amazingly everything came to us still warm. The wine was again own label, and once one bottle was finished another took its place. However, with a number of us all tucking in I didn’t drink as much as last night. The food was better than last night, but sadly we had women serving us rather than handsome young men.
One of our party had established where the toilets were. A building around the corner from us, which he said had photos on the walls of past Palio successes. ‘Like a museum,’ he told us. So we decided ‘I’m going to the museum’ would be our new euphemism for going to the toilet.
I decided after the main course that it was time to visit the museum. By happy accident that I just happened to be in front of the top table when singing started, children and young people rushed up, and I was hemmed in at a great spot for photos. The children sat on the ground just in front of the table. I was surrounded by young women, probably those who had been serving us. The contrada song started up, and I did my best to join in with the tune. I did feel somewhat out of place, and one young woman just to my left did give me suspicious looks.
There were several speeches. During the second one, the man talking became very emotional as he addressed the jockey. Then it was the jockey’s turn to speak. Of course, I didn’t understand a word of what was being said, but I made sure I laughed when the crowd laughed.
Then the crowd dispersed. The children ran to a playground and were having a great time at midnight with several ball games. I finally visited the museum. Cake was served, which I avoided, and prosecco was offered, and I managed to get two glasses. Then, at 1am, I headed home.
The atmosphere in the Piazza was amazing. People laughing, singing, involved in various courtship activities—sometimes all three at once. The place was really buzzing. But I forced myself to go to the flat. This time I found the light switch at the bottom of the stairs. Well, a timed light switch, and I did managed to get to the flat door before the light switched off. I entered as quietly as possible. One of the cats greeted me, which was rather endearing.
Yes, clear head, but I wasn’t surprised. I proudly put on my Unicorn scarf (go Unicorns!) and headed down to the Piazza for the last morning trial. I found a spot at a barrier and waited for the now familiar ritual of cannon fire (telling people to clear the track), the police walking down, then the sweepers, then the officials. There was no messing at this morning’s start. And you couldn’t really call it a race. No one is going to tire out his horse on the day of the Palio.
But I’m glad I went. Afterwards anyone can go onto the track, and so I was able to see at close hand the horses being walked to cool off and then being led away to their stables. It amazes me that anyone can just do this, that it isn’t all roped off and people held at bay.
The day was already heating up. I had thought about going out and having a really nice lunch. But I got involved in photo processing so just ate some dried fruit and nuts which I’d brought from England. I had wanted to see a ‘blessing of the horse,’ in which the jockey and the horse go into the contrada church for, indeed, a blessing from the priest. I was warned that the churches are very small (I guess as many people in Siena go to church as do in England i.e. not many) and Jacopo had told me which had the larger churches. However I decided that I wanted to support Team Unicorn. So around 2.45pm I left the flat to make my way to the church for that contrada—I figured it was the small building next to the museum.
Already contrade were marching. All contrade, whether they have a horse in the Palio or not, march a set route through Siena (but obviously setting off at different times). First comes a drummer, then the banner carriers (twirling away), the knight, his bearer at arms (plus someone to carry his helmet—not always a man in this role but only men in all the others), the contrada’s standard, and then more men in period costume and I haven’t a clue what they were supposed to be. The Torre contrada were marching up the street I needed to go down. After several days in Siena I’d realised that being polite doesn’t get you anywhere. So I firmly pushed my way through the traffic and got to the other side.
I arrived at the church just a few minutes before the jockey, and then the horse. The church was tiny, and I wasn’t able to get inside to see what happened. Then horse, jockey, and drummer et al came out. And we set off. I hadn’t planned to be one of the many following the contrada through Siena, but once we started I realised, why not? I was proudly wearing the team scarf, after all. And when else in my life would I be able to do this?
So we marched through the streets. We’d meet other contrade coming the opposite direction. Sometimes people glowered. We stopped three in the places, and there the banner wavers became banner throwers-and-catchers. Our last stop was at the cathedral, and I understand that the archbishop blesses each contrade from a top window. I didn’t see him myself.
At some point during all this I realised how serious this event was. These people were not preparing for a sporting event. The contrade were preparing to go to war.
After about an hour the front group peeled off into a building, and the rest of us dispersed. My ticket for my balcony seat for the Palio had informed me that the shop doors would open at 4.45pm, but that ‘nothing starts until 5.20pm’. It was now 4.30pm, but we were near the Piazza del Campo. No problem, thought I. I’ll go through the Piazza to my street, and go to the flat to collect my stuff and come back.
Well, the street was closed. I hadn’t realised that this was the very street from which the procession comes. The policewoman at the gate was not going to let me pass. When I asked how I could get to my flat, she just waved a hand at me. This was a bit concerning. Was the entire street shut? Would I be able to get to my flat? I only had one camera with smaller lens with me and, above all, the Palio ticket was in the flat.
Well, at times I like these I like to remember another great philosopher, and his guidebook with the words ‘Don’t Panic’ written in large, friendly letters on the cover. Yes Douglas Adams, I thought, taking deep breaths, you’re quite right. I worked out where I was by means of iPhone, and found some side streets. The building of the flat was just a few hundred feet away from the shut section of the street. Thank goodness.
So I packed up both cameras, three lenses, and most importantly collected my ticket. When I reached the shop front, I found a number of people waiting to get in. Let’s just say I’ve known better organisation. At first they seemed to be letting people in by seat or standing number, sort of like an airplane loading people from the back. But this broke down when those who had the numbers the staff were looking for hadn’t turned up yet. So they let us all in. I wandered through to the balcony. The standing areas behind one row of seats had the numbers 24 to 30. As I was seat number 27 I assumed I was there, although the seats hadn’t been attached to the metal struts separating seating from standing areas.
More confusion. We tried to get to our places, but the staff called us back inside. No one seemed to be working on getting us to our places. One male member of staff told me sternly ‘No bags!’ and grabbed at my camera backpack. Again, I put aside all British notions of politeness. ‘I AM taking my bag,’ I told him, and literally tore it out of his hands. By the way, the bag easily fit underneath the seat later on.
The displays were starting, and still we weren’t supposed to go out onto the balcony. So I went anyway. I took photos of the brigade charge and the start of the parade. Each contrada comes in, again with the drummers et al. They are followed by the jockey, who is dressed up in traditional costume and seated on a heavy draft horse. The race horse comes behind, and some of the race horses didn’t take well to the atmosphere.
Fortunately the parade is slow. There are frequent halts, which also allows the banner carriers to show off their skills. I say fortunately because the seat chaos was continuing. I was finally asked to show my ticket again, and was told off. I was due to sit in a balcony the next room over. So I went there. My seat had been taken, so I was perched near the entrance to the balcony.
But more chaos. As I describe the Battle of the Balcony, please remember that the parade is continuing below us and I’m doing my best to get photos of the experience. The seats consisted of a metal structure, into which a plastic seat was inserted. These seats run the length of the balcony, with precious little space for your legs. You are nearly perched on the railing. If you’re at the far end, you’re not going anywhere. Everyone would have to move for you to get out. Then there is standing space running behind the seats. If you are larger than a size 14 (European size) you are not going to fit on the seat nor in the standing area. In fact, two rather large men found themselves in difficulty. One had paid for a seat, but couldn’t fit himself into it. Another had paid to stand, but again his girth wouldn’t permit this.
Size of bums became quite an issue for the ensuing battle. I was comfortable on the last seat, my size 14 bum covering area without straying over. But then two people arrived who had paid for seats. It seems there was one empty seat near the far end. The shop staff moved the standing people off their perches and then walked along to urge people to scoot over. That didn’t work. Jacopo himself arrived, and as I continued to concentrate on the parade he and another man entered into a rather heated debate. Pity I don’t understand Italian. Or perhaps it’s just as well.
The people standing were asked to come off yet again. One man protested very loudly in English. Jacopo himself walked down, and people scrunched up. Two and a half seats were freed, for me and the two late comers. I suggested that they go in first. There was some open space between the last seat and the next one, so I could perch on the half seat comfortably enough.
The parade continued. The chaos continued. The free space was to become two more seats. The staff tried to ram in two more of the metal railings. Not enough room. They brought two wooden folding chairs. These chairs were lower than the seats, and I was determined not to have one of them—I wouldn’t have been able to look over the balcony railing. But these didn’t fit either. So back to the metal struts, and a determined man managed to get them to fit together. A woman and a young boy somehow got in, and the seats were secured.
Finally, I thought, an end to it. The contrada procession had ended, and a team of white oxen pulled in this year’s Palio standard. The horses came out for the 7.45pm Palio start time. The entire Piazza went silent. And I do not exaggerate. The entire area went absolutely silent, fifty thousand people packed into the centre of the square and watching from the buildings, and again I felt that intensity. We were waiting for battle to commence. The gloves were off. Time for war.
Except we kept not starting. The tenth horse this time was Unicorn, and time and again the horses were pulled out of the line up to circle yet again. At one point assistants came to cool the horses down. People began to boo and whistle, particularly after a false start. I was starting to feel guilty for being in Team Unicorn. As for me, as the light levels dropped and dropped and the ISO I’d have to use rose and rose, I realised that my photos would be to personally capture the experience. There would be too much noise to make them printable. My arms were aching from trying to keep the camera ready, with its heavy lens. And the father of the boy kept leaning over him to grasp the railing, which I found annoying.
Finally around 8.40pm the race began. My photos show some of the main action. One jockey deliberately rode over to push another jockey off his horse. Another rider was unseated (I didn’t see that bit). The jockey of Torre used impressive tactics to gain and to keep the lead. As he crossed the finish line people began to run onto the track. A man was knocked down by a horse just in front of us. The winning horse and jockey stopped near us. I was busy getting photos of them, but I understand that a very nasty fist fight broke out just further along the track. Like I said, it was war.
As it was on the balcony. People had crowded into the standing area behind me, and they pressed forward. I was pushed into the metal railing, to the point of discomfort and near to pain. I tried to tell people to stop, but my voice was lost in the roars of either celebration or insult, I couldn’t tell which. So I tried to protect myself from being crushed whilst at the same time taking photos of the triumphant jockey.
At 9pm we filed out of the balcony. I left the shop and bought a beer and a slice of pizza. I watched a video of the race in the cafe. Then back to the flat, where unfortunately downloading photos took several hours. Finally to bed at 1am! Left somewhat troubled by the intensity and violence of the whole Palio.
As my flight on 4 July was 11am from Pisa, and the buses had the possibility of being a nightmare, I had decided some time ago that if the Palio ran on 2 July I’d go to Pisa the next day and stay overnight near the airport. I explained this to my hosts, who wanted to give me the money for the night I wasn’t going to stay. I declined the offer—after all, they’d kept the room free for me so it wasn’t fair for them to be out of pocket when leaving early was my decision.
I left the flat at 10.30am, humping my case down four flights of steps. Bus to Florence, and then the confusion of where to catch the bus to Pisa. I heard a woman speaking Italian asking for ‘Pisa Aeroporta’ from a guard. She spoke no English, and of course I speak no Italian, but I made myself well enough understood that I could follow them to the bus. It was parked outside of the train station, not far away. The driver urged me to get on board ‘It’s so hot.’ So I did, and ate the sandwich I’d purchased in Siena.
At Pisa I found the way to the youth hostel. As I dragged my bag along the hot street, I wondered how much longer I’ll have the stamina for these types of journeys. I’m beginning to see why some of my friends book hotels with shuttles or package holidays where someone meets you and takes you where you need to go.
The hostel itself was great. An air conditioned common room with a bar, a lift to take you to the dorm rooms. I managed to get a bottom bunk. I locked my valuables in a locker (I had brought a lock with me), and I went down to the common room to have a large house beer (Polish!) and crisps. I know, why not walk over to see the Tower of Pisa etc? Well, I have seen it before, it’s hot, I’m tired, and I’m still busy processing the whole Palio experience. Air conditioning and beer just appealed at the time. After a buffet dinner (7 Euros, including a small beer) I retired to the room and worked on photos until late.
The air conditioning in the bedroom was too strong! Despite the blanket I felt chilled in the night.
Not much to report for my last day. I trudged back to the airport, checked in, boarded, and then we sat and waited for a hour before the ‘plane was allowed to take off. Then more delays collecting my car. And an incident of exhaust smoke which means I’d better take my car to the garage to be looked over!
But I did realise what had disturbed me yesterday. Culture shock. I have never seen tribal loyalty taken to such great extremes. All the preparations, the pageantry, the procession—it’s all done with deadly intensity. Perhaps you have to be born in Siena to understand. It was definitely beyond my comprehension.
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