The world – through my eyes
Flag throwing. Marching parades of men costumed in doublets, hose, and caps drumming ancient songs. Spur of the moment street chanting. Trumpets and bugles singing with merriment and spirit.
For a moment I feel as though I am living in ancient Italy, cerca the 1500s.
My arrival to Siena was in perfect timing, as the Palio, an ancient horse race, was to take place in just a few days. And the opening festivities were in full swing. Historical parades and processions randomly sneak up behind me, next to me, and in front of me as I meander through the winding streets of Siena.
Finally, the cobblestone street I have been walking, leads me to il campo, the town square. A large sea shell shaped arena which marks the town center. Hundreds of years of racing tradition have stamped this place and today I am standing inside.
Arriving to il campo, I am an hour early just to be safe. Looking around, I see kids and adults donning colorful silk scarves which reflect the contrada, or neighborhood they belong. Scanning the entire piazza I notice a sense of community and contagious excitement. Smiling and laughing, everyone anxiously awaits the start of tonight’s, prove.
While the Palio itself does not begin for another four days, there are three days of trial races in which the horses are tested for suitability and tonight marks the first trial. Each trial, or prove, consists of four to five horses out of the 30 potential candidates. The horses are narrowed down to just 10 for the Palio race itself.
Tonight I have a front row seat (in the circle, to be clear). In order to have a prime front row seat, on the benches encircling the track, one must pay a pretty penny or know someone who knows someone who knows someone! And I do not.
Suddenly…..BOOOOOOM!!! I am completely startled and almost deafened by the monstrous sound that echoes off the walls again and again. I look up and assume this is a starting signal. But I continue to wait. A short time goes by and another BOOM!
But this time, I look around at the crowd and see everyone has their eyes on the track. The horses are lined up. I expect a final BOOM to sound, but all I hear is…….
Absolutely nothing. The entire piazza is as silent as a library at midnight.
After about a minute of utter silence, a signal sounds and the horses are off. The crowd erupts in cheer. Before I know it the horses make an entire lap around the track and stop. They do this again two more times and each time the pounding of the hooves, the screaming of children, and the joy that can be felt running through the piazza is electrifying. Unlike the Palio race whereby the horses will complete 3 full laps at once, in a trial race, the horses are not racing against each other and complete a lap at a time. Again they are being tested for strength, suitability, and good health.
In just three short minutes, the prove is over. Not wanting to get stuck in the square for too long I bolt to the nearest exit and I am face to face with one of the horses. Behind this horse is his contrada following along, praising the horse and banding together to show fierce competitiveness. The horse is circled around a few times in front of the crowd and then they continue walking around the track, contrada following close behind.
After the contrada passes through, I run quickly across the track to the other side. This time I am stuck behind a line of people trying to squeeze through the exit. Turning around, I am again face to face with another horse and his contrada. I worry for a moment that I might get into some kind of trouble for being so close, but I continue to hug the side rail and watch, and no one scolds me. I cannot believe how close I am to these people and their horse. Sharing their energy I join in the cheering and find myself getting lost in ancient history.
Now that this contrada has passed, the line out to the streets has lessened and I make my way out. This time, I find a horse and his contrada waltzing and celebrating through the streets.
I cannot even imagine something like this happening back home. But that is the beauty of the Palio. You can only find it in Siena and only twice a year, July 2nd and August 16th.
Have you ever been to the Palio? Is it on your bucket list?
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