Siena’s greatest tradition…

Yesterday evening was my first time at Palio di Siena. For those not familiar with it, it’s one of the most spectacular events held in Italy, a bareback horse race around the main square of Siena (Piazza del Campo) held twice a year. Attending the trial races yesterday evening and this morning was an absolute amazing experience, even though I am still battling with the mixed feelings related to the fact of attending a horses race event on such a difficult and dangerous track, where undoubtedly horses will suffer and will get injured or worse. So far I have not seen such a thing happen so I have been comfortable in experiencing it but I suppose that the race itself is going to be a total different matter so, at least for now, I have decided to not attend it. It’s a tradition that has been alive for centuries, for which its people are extremely proud and passionate about and I had goosebumps myself from the very first moment I stepped in Piazza del Campo yesterday evening.

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Piazza del Campo getting ready for the morning trial

I didn’t know a lot about Palio before moving to Tuscany and I still have to learn plenty but what I have been learning in the last few weeks from Senesi (people from Siena) keeps fascinating me.

While tourists (including me) may get excited only for the 2 Palio dates (July 2nd and August 16th), for Senesi Palio is not only limited to these 2 days a year: as they like to say, Palio is 365 days a year.

A few interesting facts about Palio, that I recently learnt:

  • Palio is not limited to July 2nd and August 16th: in truth, it should be referred as Palio days since equally important are the 4 days preceding each Palio, busy with rituals and processions and the twice a day race trials (one in the morning and one in the evening). One of the most important moment for each contradaiolo is when the horses are assigned to each contrada by draw ( the so called “Tratta”), a moment that attracts thousands of people in Piazza del Campo. The starting positions are by draw as well.

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  • There are 17 contrada in Siena but only 10 of them take part in each race. Each contrada has got a traditional rival and for each of them winning the Palio is as important as making sure that their rival contrada does not win it. Each contrada is considered a sort of individual small State, run by a Priore, a Capitano with the support of 2-3 contradaioli called “mangini”. Each contrada has its own church and their own headquarter where its flags, drapes, costumes and historical memories are kept.

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  • Forget the fair play: Palio has been and will always be a game of power, plots, threats and bribes, as the Senesi themselves openly admit. Everything is allowed (including bribes and all sort of dirty play behind the scenes) and the only rule of the race is that the jockeys (fantini) can’t interfere with other jockey’s reins but everything else is allowed and should be expected.

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  • It’s the horse that wins the Palio and gets all the honours and celebrations, not the jockey and the horse can win even without the jockey. From the moment jockeys are drawn, they can be changed up to the day before the Palio. The jockeys are paid and they are more a sort of mercenaries not emotionally attached to the contrada and open to bribes and corruption from rival contrada – no wonder why you hardly see them smiling during the trials! An extremely important figure, not to be confused with the jokey is the so called Barbaresco, the horse assistant that during the Palio days sleeps in the stable with the horse and never leaves his side.

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  • The race itself on July 2nd starts at 7:45 PM and lasts just over 90 seconds. All the horses – except the horse drawn last – are kept in the so called “Mossa”, an area in the north-west corner of Piazza del Campo marked by two ropes where the horses are gathered. The race officially starts when the free horse charges the group between the two ropes.
  • Watching the Palio in Piazza del Campo is free. If you have got plenty of money to spend (I have been quoted Eur 450 for a seat on Saturday July 2nd) you can secure a place on one of the “palco” or balconies, definitely a more privileged position to experience the Palio but that will need more investment and undoubtedly more planning.
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Waiting for the morning trial

If you want to take some nice shots during the trial races (I can’t recommend about the Palio day itself since I have not experienced it), keep in mind that the morning trials (9 AM) are generally a lot quieter than the evening ones and you get more chances to secure a place in the front line without having to arrive in Piazza del Campo too early (I was there at 7.45 AM this morning and got a spot right next to the Mossa). If you want to get a good close up of the horses and the jockeys, position yourself near the Mossa where the horses start (keep in mind that where there is a double fence you might get some policemen or the square cleaners to partially obstruct your view).

If you want to get pictures of the horses entering the square, get down to where the Town Hall is, which is also a great spot if you want to have a longer view of the horses racing. This location can get a bit noisy 🙂 but extremely colourful since there are the stands where hundreds of little contradaioli (kids of all ages) wave and sing before and during the race.

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After the trials, the horse is brought back to each contrada’s stable to get washed and rested, followed by the procession of its contradaioli.

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The horse back at the stable (Contrada Istrice)

Though you can’t get right up to the stable, follow them down the streets of Siena for some great people shots. Equally beautiful is just spending a couple of hours walking through the different contrada, picking up the colours and the symbols of each of them.

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It’s official: I am in love with Siena each day more!

 

 

 

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Why Kep should be included in your Cambodia itinerary…

If you are heading to Cambodia and Kep is not on your itinerary… you may want to reconsider it, if you have got a couple of spare days.

At first sight Kep doesn’t even look like a town as such… but it was definitely one of those stops that truly surprised us during our trip to Cambodia: a small seaside “town” became an amazing opportunity to discover this stunning part of the country, leaving behind the Sihanoukville crowds and submerging in a much more natural and less artificial environment. If you are combining Cambodia and Vietnam and you are not in a particular rush to get to the other side, there is a big chance that Kep is going to be on your itinerary before entering Vietnam from the south, since it’s just a short drive from the Ha Teang Prek Chak border (that you will reach after driving through a massive plain of salt salines).

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Kep-sur-mer (as it was known during the French occupation) is located less than 150 km southwest of Phnom Penh and it was once the seaside escape of the French elite, looking for a break from the humid heat of the capital. As a reminder of the welfare of those days, if you drive around Kep you will immediately spot the remains of stunning villas, example of that Modernism that developed strong in Cambodia until the King was overthrown in 1970 and the country entered decades of violence and war, with the Khmer Rouge first and the Vietnamese later on (for more info on Cambodia’s Modernism, read this).

When the Khmer Rouge first took power, Kep was cleared out and the villas abandoned and destroyed, for they were representing exactly what the Khmer Rouge were fighting against. Some of these properties remain almost as intact as at the time they were occupied by the Khmer Rouge, but most of them were badly damaged and now only ruins remain. In recent years, some of them have been restored and converted in luxury accomodations (such as Villa Romonea), trying to bring Kep back to the splendor of the old days.

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Villa Romonea – Picture taken from Booking.com

Nowadays, locals and expats alike flock here looking for a nice seaside location with a relaxed atmosphere, plenty of fresh seafood and accommodation for all budgets. During the weekend it can get very busy, so it’s advisable to book accomodation in advance, particularly if you have got some specific place in mind. The funny thing is that there wouldn’t be any decent beach at all, if it wasn’t for the powder white sand imported from elsewhere that build up a small town beach, perfect for a dip. Kep is particularly well known all over Cambodia and beyond for a local produce transformed in a culinary delicacy: the blue crab, featured in almost all the restaurants menus in town and also in a giant statue off Kep’s main beach.

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A bit tacky but definitely a good reminder of one of Kep’s delicacies…
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Not a bad spot for a meal!

The best way to discover Kep? We booked a 2 night-stay at The Boat House, a very reasonably priced guesthouse with spotlessly clean large rooms, a few minutes walk from Kep’s beach. The French owner is extremely keen in showing you the surrounding area and will explain you in detail which roads to follow to not miss out on anything the area has to offer. Then you just have to wake up early the following day, have a filling breakfast and hire a moped; follow his instructions and his hand-drawn map and explore the surrounding countryside. We set out quite early and came back in the late afternoon and we absolutely loved it.

Driving around Kep

The self-made tour starts with a ride (and  walk) around the thriving Crab Market; it’s called crab market but they do sell plenty of other fresh seafood and local produce but nevertheless it’s undoubtedly famous for the blue crab. Take your time to peruse the stalls and take a close look at their catch. Just a quick note: though we were not aware when we visited Cambodia (2014), I have recently read that due to illegal and destructive crab catching practices, plenty of experts claim that crab population in the area is strongly diminishing (both in number and in size) and the coral reef is being damaged as well; as a result, a few restaurants have now decided to stop serving crab, in an effort to preserve the environment and its population. On the other hand, a stronger and tighter control (and punishment) on the illegal crabbers would definitely help….

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Blue crabs ready to be sold at Kep’s Crab Market

The crab I had there was by far the best I have ever tasted, seasoned with the other star produce of the area: Kampot pepper. We tried a few restaurants in the Crab Market area and, at the time we visited, Kimly, which is the longest running Kep’s crab eateries, was definitely the best one (and the busiest one with locals): great views over the sea, good healthy portions and absolutely delicious food – not only crab, as you can see from the picture below! Go early and grab a table on the terrace with an uninterrupted sunset view for an unforgettable meal.

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Healthy portions at Kimly: crab with Kampot pepper, crab with lemongrass, tamarind and coconut and prawns with vegetables.

Back to our moped tour, from the crab market go back to the main roundabout and follow the coastal road (usually empty) heading towards the Cambodia/Vietnam border. From there, we abandoned the main road and followed the map into unpaved roads. I didn’t keep a copy of it with me but I am 100% sure that the owner is absolutely used to share his knowledge of the area with guests. Getting lost while en-route was part of the game and it happened a couple of times 🙂 but asking for directions was the fun bit. You will drive through quiet villages, not particularly used to tourists but with people extremely keen to try to communicate, once they overcome the initial shyness. Unpaved white roads going through beautiful natural scenery, cow herds crossing your path, kingfishers and stunning butterflies flying by and water buffaloes resting peacefully in the water.

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All in all a perfect picture of Cambodia and definitely the best way to depart from this stunning country.

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Want to read more about Cambodia? Have a look at my other posts with the highlights of Cambodia and the best beach with crystal water, white powdery sand and (most important) affordable accomodation!

 

Planning your next trip to Cambodia? Here is what you shouldn’t miss…

I planned my trip to Cambodia sitting in an hammock overlooking the Mekong river in the Four Thousand Islands in Laos and the planning – which by itself is an amazing part of any travel – was utterly special. Even though I had a month to spend in Cambodia, throughout the planning I got a bit overwhelmed by the feeling of not being able to see everything that I wanted to see but at the end of the day, as in any other trip, the key is to make absolutely the most of every location you choose to stop, keeping in mind that a couple of places might need a bit more pre-planning.

All I have seen in Cambodia was unforgettable but here are my absolute highlights – in no particular order – that could even fit a well organized 2 weeks trip.

TEMPLES OF ANGKOR

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Angkor Wat

The site is simply superb and in my view it fully justifies the fact that it’s always on top of the list of things to visit in Cambodia. It’s the largest religious monument in the world and since it covers 162.6 hectares, it needs pretty good planning before tackling it, if you want to get the most of it without going back to your guesthouse absolutely knackered to do anything else. How long to spend visiting Angkor is down to you; we took a 3-day pass and, even though a lot more could have been seen, 3 days for us worked just perfect: start early to beat both the crowds and the heat, rest and have a quick lunch somewhere during the hottest hours and leave the site after sunset. Before starting visiting Angkor, we planned the temples we wanted to see on each day, we found a friendly tuk tuk driver with a bit of English and we agreed with him both the price and the daily route to save time each day.

PHNOM PENH

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Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

As a part of any trip to Cambodia, a visit to its capital should be paid, particularly since it is there where you will mostly confront yourself with Cambodia’s past: Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. I have dedicated a full post to my visit to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, located right downtown. My strongest advice is – before visiting – to document yourself as much as you can (I’ve given a few suggestions of interesting readings in my post). It is true that Phnom Penh is not only Tuol Sleng and the Choeung Ek Killing Fields (located about 17 km from Phnom Penh) but it is definitely a fundamental part of the city. Take your time and be prepared for one of the toughest visit you could possibly do. There is plenty more to visit in Phnom Penh, including the beautiful Royal Palace and Silver Pagoda (go just before closing time at lunch time and you will have it almost by yourself) and the National Museum. I would say that you will need a few days to do the most interesting sites and get a feel for the city. Many people we met during our travels disliked Phnom Pehn; I liked it, busy, noisy and thriving at anytime of the day (particularly early morning, as any city/town in Asia) and found it extremely interesting to walk around and discover the different areas.

KRATIE

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Dolphin-watching in Kampi, near Kratie

I have always appreciated how beautiful it is when a city sits on a river. If the river is the Mekong then it’s an absolute delight. Kratie is a thriving town right on the Mekong, a few hours south from the Laos-Cambodia border; plenty of guesthouses and small restaurants make it a good place to stop. The town itself is not the main reason why you should visit but it’s a great base to explore the surrounding area, knowing that once back from your day exploring you can grab a beer and sit with the locals on the Mekong banks enjoying the sunset (don’t look down though, cause that’s where Cambodians throw all their garbage, unfortunately :-(. Hire a moped, leave the town and be prepared to be gobsmacked: lush green vegetation, almost abandoned temples with freely roaming cows, friendly and enthusiast kids keen to play and talk in English and one of the most stunning activities you can possibly enjoy in the gloaming sunset light: dolphin-watching in Kampi, around 16 km from Kratie town. The Irrawaddy dolphin is an endangered species throughout Asia and seeing it swimming in the Mekong is magical. We absolutely loved it.

SEN MONOROM

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Elephants at the Elephant Valley project in Sen Monorom

The town itself (exceptionally dusty, at least when we visited in February) is not particularly attractive and it is definitely quite a detour from any other part in Cambodia (we got there from Kratie) and you will need a couple of days on your side if you want to visit this part of the country but it is totally worth it. What really made the difference was our experience at the Elephant Valley Project. We spent a full day there and we learnt so much from the guys that manage and run that we came back to Europe wanting to learn a lot more about Cambodia and about some of the specific issues in the region of Mondulkiri (land expropriation, rubber plantations etc), all topics addressed in depth by the staff at the EVP. It’s not cheap and you will need to plan and book in advance but it’s one of those things totally worth it.

KEP

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Kep restaurants overlooking the sea

Personally, I would only need one reason to go to Kep: amazing crab. That to me would be enough reason to visit. On top of that, Kep area offers some of the most amazing natural scenery and wildlife, just a moped ride from town. The fact that we chose to stay at The Boat House made the difference. The French owner was extremely helpful and keen to show us the best spots around town by handing us out a hand-drawn map with the most interesting things not to miss: buffalo herds, hidden beaches, salt mines, temples etc all via countryside unpaved roads that made the moped ride far more exciting. And the best thing of all? During your exploration you will rarely cross your path with any other tourist. I can’t recommend it enough but make sure to leave a full day in Kep, enough to explore the outdoor. If you can pay a visit to the daily market, do it. If not, in the evening head to the restaurants at the Crab Market to get some of the most delicious crab fried with Kampot pepper. We tried a few and Kimly was by far our favourite (in terms of portions and taste!).

BATTAMBANG

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Phnom Banan Temple

A town with a thriving market (that is worth a visit itself) set in an amazing natural setting with plenty of history to soak into. We spent 2 nights in Battambang and it was enough to explore the town and spend one full day exploring the area. In all our stops we usually rented a moped and explore the countryside but on this occasion we decided to get an English speaking tuk tuk driver to make sure we were not missing anything out since there are plenty of things to see and quite away from one another: beautiful hill-top temples with gorgeous views (Phnom Sampeau and Phnom Banan), amazing caves with thousands of bats flying out every evening creating one of the most stunning natural “show” I have ever seen (you will not be the only one enjoying the phenomenon), trees completely covered in giant fruit bats etc. A day spent in the countryside outside Battambang is the best way to get to know this corner of Cambodia.

If you still have a couple of days on your side and fancy a bit of seaside, you may want to check out Koh Rong Samloem, a small island off Sihanoukville and definitely my favourite island/beach so far! Plenty of info in my post, how to get there and where to sleep!

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Not a bad spot to spend a few days…