Friday, July 9, 2010

Not Missing Another

After missing the annual Baby Gorilla Naming Ceremony in Rwanda, I wasn't going to let another once in a lifetime experience pass me by.

So, with a sore back and wrist, it wasn't too hard a decision to leave the vineyard a few days early for the Palio in Siena. For those of you that saw "Quantum of Solace," the Palio is the ancient horse race James Bond races through at the beginning of the film.

After a slightly confusing bus ride from Castel del Piano, where I had to transfer buses on the side of a highway, I arrived in beautiful Siena.

Although it should be obvious, I could not find a taxi from the bus terminal-- obviously it is in the next square over with a teeny tiny sign that I also couldn't find.
However, what I did find was a Post Office which I was delighted by since I was now lugging around a case of the most delicious olive oil from the vineyard. Sure, it would be "no problem" to mail the oil, until you actually try-- was given the excuses: it would be stolen inside the Italian postal system (nice!), they can't mail liquid or glass and it was too heavy.

Okay, I would deal with the oil dilemma later, for now I just wanted to get to Il Chiostro Del Carmine, the swanky ex-convent from the 13th century that I was staying at for the next two nights (well over budget).

It was lovely, once I got there, with breakfast served from the old wine cellar of the Carmelite monks and a lovely courtyard. Getting there was another matter- due to the Palio and no car traffic allowed in the historic part of the city the taxi driver told me "not possible." I was in complete denial that I had to walk to the other end of town with all my belongs, and this damn olive oil. Anyway, I got there, a little sweaty (well, a lot), but I got there.

After getting some yummy pasta to fill my tummy, I walked back to get a better look at the sites I powered past with my backpack. The city is charming, especially during the Palio with all the streets lined with the flags of each contrata (seventeen secular districts into which the town is divided with their own government, coat of arms, emblems and colours, festivities, patron Saints, etc.).

I first visited the Duomo, which is probably my favorite Italian cathedral now that I have seen a thousand.

The cathedral, completed in 1215, was nice inside and out. The exterior, made from white, green and red marble was really pretty. And the interior marble floors were also quite spectacular.
My favorite parts were the vividly colored Libreria Piccolomini, built to house the books of Pius II, and the faces stared down at you from near the domed ceiling.

Then off to the Piazza del Campo, the site of the main attraction and the square you think of when you think Siena.

The Palio is run to celebrate the apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani. The Palio was first run in 1701 in honour of the "Madonna dell'Assunta" the patroness and Advocate of Siena through all the tragic events, since she protected the Sienese militia at the famous battle of Monteaperti on September 4, 1260, against the Florentines (can you tell that is a cut and paste?).

They run 4 trials before the main race. I attended the final trial, the night before the Palio and had a great time. The different contratas are all in sections singing their fight song, which I hear translates to something like 'your street sucks, we are better and are gonna kick your ass.'
Before the race the Siena police rode around the square in formal attire, with swords drawn- it was cool. Then the trial, which apparently they don't really try to win, it is just to get a feel for the course. Some of the horses basically walked the three laps around the square. It was really fun, so I was super excited for the real event tomorrow.
After the final trial, each contrata hosts a huge dinner on the street- was quite a site since these street parties are basically ever other street since the city isn't so big.

In prep for the main event, I spent the morning trying to find a solution to my oil dilemma (which involved dragging it to Bologna, unfortunately) and looking for SPF for less than 20 Euro (I guess they don't worry about skin cancer here?).

That left some time to get some yummy cheese and cured meats from a little shop. I walked in and the first question was "red or white?" Hours later, I left the shop stuffed full of wine, cheese, meat, sweets and random Palio knowledge all for the low, low price of FREE. I love Italy!

My time at the shop also gave me a birds eye view of the Palio parade with each contrata marching through the streets with their horses, flags, men in armour and velvet (it was SO hot), etc. It was like stepping back in time.

But now there was no time to waste since you need to get inside the inner square hours early to get a good spot. I got there at 4pm for a race that started after 7pm- unlike the 4th trial, this was much less pleasant with people's sweaty skin pressed up against you- picture a smaller, hot Times Square New Year's Eve. Yuck!
For hours before each contrata parades through the square, which would have been cool if it wasn't so hot and I could see.

Finally, the Palio!!! You can kinda make out the starting line in the midst of the masses. It takes forever to get the horses lined up, since there aren't gates--- still unsure exactly what was going on here since there were announcements being made in Italian that I obviously didn't understand.

But then they were off! It doesn't take long, and the lead up is torture, but the actual race was amazing. You are basically turning in a circle along with thousands of other people that are REALLY into it. The contrata, Nicchio (the shell), rumored to have the best horse, led for the first half of the race, only to be overtaken by Selva (Forest), the green and orange team with a rhinoceros bearing a huge tree hung with hunting implements.

Selva went nuts, rushing the track (and almost trampling everyone in the process) to hug the jockey, horse or anyone around. People were literally in tears. I happened to be standing exactly where the horse slowed after the finish, so I had a great vantage point to the Selva celebrations.

It was like nothing I have ever been to before (or am likely to go to again).

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