Published: August 7th 2012July 2nd 2012
Sienna and Il Palio
I had planned to go and see Il Palio since maybe August-Septmber last year. The only problem was it fell on the first day of my fashion design course....I couldn't really cancel going to my first day of classes in favor of a horse race?! But luckily fate stepped in and cancelled the class on the first day!!! I couldn't believe my luck! Even bettee, Davina's class was also cancelled and she wanted to go too! SO EXCITED!!!
We left Florence at about 11, got our tickets (but didn't realise they needed validating and got a $5 fine) and took the train to Sienna (about 2 hours away). We took a bus into town and realised we were famished so we stopped for pizza and bought some biscuits for later. We wandered straight down to the track which is all played out in their main town square (not square shapped, more like a shell). They had filled the track with sand and we gatheres the race was yet some time away because there were restaurants still operating outdoor chairs and umbrella's on the track! I thought that it would be just so romantic (not in the love sense) to have icecream on the track before the race began, so we walked over to grab a table. The staff looked flustered because they had to pack up and get off in 15mins but assured us if we could eat in that time we could have our gelato! Yay! Tick that off the bucket list! Lots of things have made it on my bucket list after I have done them in Europe! We had pistacio, vanilla and mint, delish!
We noticed there was flags flying from the town hall in each of the region's colours and some people had scarves around their neck proudly displaying their home colours. Davina and I wanted to feel a little more like locals so we went off to buy a scarf. Not being a local we both managed to buy a scarf for a team who weren't running this round. Davina picked on colours, I picked on colours and the fact it had a Unicorn as its emblem. I then remembered what Haley our busabout guide had told us. There are maybe 12 regions in Sienna but the race track can only hold 7 horses running abreast so it's a lottery as to which region runs in the July race and the other regions run in the August race. All the horses are also unknown to the riders, they choose which jockey rides which horse only days from the official race. All riders ride bareback in traditional costumes and race through the piazza only 3 times.
We walked through town to see what else was happening and heard the call of a brass band, so we followed it only to be greeted by a big group of locals dressed in traditional costumes carrying massive flags. Some of their costumes had many layers and some of the men were wearing wigs. It would have been stifling as it was an extremely hot day. Suddenly they started clearing a space around the flag bearers and moving the crowd back. They twirled and spun until suddenly throwing the flag poles high into the air where they changed direction.
I watched transfixed as they descended on a straight line directly towards me! I was wondering whether to try and grab it or run away, unfortunately running away wasn't an option because the crowed was packed so thick. I had a 'life flashing before my eyes' moment before another guy not dressed in costume but appeared to be part of the group shielded me with his body and grabbed the flag as it came down. Davine was right next to me and said she had just closed her eyes! I was as white as a sheet. It was amazing but we didn't quite need the adrenaline kick! We decided that was enough excitement for the moment and head into the main arena.
I asked the water seller what the best place to sit was as people were starting to snaffle their locations in preparation for the race. She pointed down in the bottom part of the shell next to the large seating stands that were currently unoccupied. There was already a line of people along the fence where in other places their were gaps so we figured she was probably onto something. We placed ourselves behind the official looking photographers and sat down to have a chat and wait it out. By this time it was about 2-2:30. We watched as a water truck encircled the track spraying down the sand of the track as it went and then wetting the crowd as well. It was quite entertaining to watch people happily getting drenched in the very hot piazza.
After about 2 hours I decided to check what time the race started with our new Italian photographer friends, their English and my Italian were both bad but we established that instead of the race starting at 5:45 like we had thought, it was more lile 7:45! Ohh! So we had another 3 hours?! Holy moly. We were sure people wouldn't be lining up this early if it wasn't worth it though! At some point officials came by with flyers describing the event and proceedings and we managed to translate it into English. Although the race started at 7:45 the main arena would close to allow people in by 6:30 and there would be a parade! Awesome, that should distract us and keep boredom at bay. As did the random firing of canons. Anyone close to me knows I don't handle loud suprising noises well, I tend to scream loudly and scare other people. Well its good to know, some things never change and I frequently scared everyone around me with tiny screams each time the damm canons went off.
So by this time people were crowding around our area and Davina and I had to be pushy to keep our spots, the new comers were encroaching on our hard earnt, long defended territory! One woman had a go at Davina because we were sitting instead of standing to guard our positions and said we should stop having a picnic! She was just jealous she didn't think ahead and buy buscuits of her own, the chocolate had melted on mine but it was still absolutely delicious! By the time the parade began there was no longer any room on any balconies, stands or cement to be seen in the shell shapped piazza. We later discovered there was 10 000+ people there.
The parade was amazing, each region regardless of whether they were competing came out in their costumes with their own musicians and flag bearers with their own token costumer on a horse (not the race horse). It was quite obvious from the extremely ackward dismount, that these men were definately not riders! The race horses did get shown to the crowd but they only came out a door closer to the finish to go immediately back inside the town hall. The parade concluded directly in front of us with the flag throwing demonstration fro the 2 leading men. Each team threw slightly differently and some routines were mlre spectacular or accurate than others. I went entirely way too snap happy and managed to get every team (later now I do wonder why I need all those 300+ photos and what I am going to do with them?!). The last group were the officials, towed by a group of the most enormous cattle I have ever seen, even I as tall as I am would be dwarfed by these bulls. I imagine there would also be a lot of good eating in them too!
Finally the teams were ready, all the men from each of the regions and all the musicians filled the stand immediately in front of us yelling and cheering. The riders came out the door in front of us and entered the track. Each region went crazy at the site of their own rider and the passion and excitement on their faces was quite simply priceless. The water seller had been right, we did have the best spots!
The photographer jumped up onto the cement pillar that Davine and I had been standing around to the complete disgust of all of the 100's of people around us who yelled at him in Italian (he suddenly pretended he didn't understand! Hehe). Because he saw me fending off everyone pushing in, he told me to take his prime position track side! Wow it doesn't get better than this! The riders are called by lottery to see what the order is for the race, the first 6 horses line up and when the 7th horse crosses the line the race begins! The starting point was on the opposite side of the arena to us so we heard the noise of the crowd, which was deafening, before we saw the horses coming around the corner.
One lap down and then around the corner they come again, this time one horse was on its own, a jockey had fallen off! Last round and the snail region (sorry each region had its own animal, rabbit, snake, snail etc) was in the lead and didn't he know it! The cheers of the winning team were heard for miles. The race was all over in under 3 minutes but it was definately worth waiting for. As soon as it was over the team with the fallen rider had women crying and jumping the fences, everyone else also jumped the fences, squishing the people like myself who were trackside. Lukily some kind people managed to fend off the worst of the people being pushy and I could get back from the edge.
Davina and I were starving so we headed for another slice of yummy pizza before walking to the Duomo to say we had actually seen something of Sienna too. We walked past a group of cute policemen who insisted I take their photo too. We got lost trying to get back to the bus, but we did find an incredible view. I tried in broken Italian to find out where a taxi rank was but to no avail. We had only one last train we could catch back to Florence so we hot footed it into another part of town, luckily finding a taxi so we could run for the train. After a sleep ride we were back in Florence where it was nice to be able to call somewhere home.