An unexpected Palio experience…

Siena Palio is over. All the stress, anxiety and excitement of the Palio days (or better to say of the year, for the Senesi) was over in just a couple of minutes last Saturday evening. La Lupa contrada won, after 27 years. At the moment, for as much I try hard I can’t think of any other sport or event that lasts so short and that profoundly marks a part of a city in a matter of seconds.

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The fact that la Lupa contrada won is undoubtedly important (particularly for la Lupa contrada itself, of course) but that meant a true catastrophe for the contrada of the Istrice, its forever rival. The two contrada horses were next to each other at the starting line and the animosity was clear. As I wrote in my previous post, for a contrada that races in the Palio, winning is as equally important as making sure that its rival doesn’t win. That happened on July 2nd and I suppose that was the worst nightmare for the Istrice contrada and all its contradaioli. I was watching the Palio in a bar in the Istrice contrada and the fact that la Lupa won completely changed the mood of the evening, at least for this part of the city: minutes after the result, flocks of people abandoned Siena streets, head down with tears in their eyes, walking back fast pace towards Istrice contrada headquarter. A funeral would be the best way I could describe the atmosphere, and I am absolutely serious. When I say proper tears, I mean that I have never seen so much distress in such a vast group of people of all ages: from kids up to elderly people, the distress was patent and widespread and I felt a bit intrusive in being in the Istrice contrada in such a moment since, for much you would like to show empathy with people crying, you will never be able to fully understand the desperation of the contradaioli.

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Horse and jockey of Istrice contrada

But let’s get back from the beginning…

Though the race itself starts at 7.45 PM, it is absolutely worth to be in Siena in the early afternoon of July 2nd (the same applies to August 16th) to attend the multitude of events collateral to the Palio that help to build up the whole atmosphere.

For various reasons, we had previously decided to not watch Palio inside Piazza del Campo but we still wanted to enjoy half a day in Siena, wandering down the streets packed with locals and foreigners alike.

If you are planning on watching the Palio inside Piazza del Campo, bear in mind that:

  • If you want to get a good spot, i.e. next to the Mossa (where the horses start) or at the finishing line, people will start arriving to secure a space next to the fence in the early afternoon. We entered the square around 4 PM and the best spots on the fence where already taken, so probably around 1 or 2 PM would be recommended.
  • At the time we arrived, almost all the square except a tiny part on the west corner was in the full sun. If you are planning on arriving early, come prepared: water, a hat or even a small umbrella to shade yourself and plenty of sun cream are an absolute must. The are a few stalls in Piazza del Campo that sell water (or there is a potable fountain, if you don’t mind the queue in the baking sun).
  • All the accesses to the square start to close around 4.30/5 PM, before the historical parade enters Piazza del Campo. The last access to be closed (at 6.45 PM) is in Via Dupre’ (from the contrada Onda).
  • In the square there are no toilets, so be prepared.
  • Once the last access to the square is closed, you can’t leave Piazza del Campo until the Palio is finished and nobody can’t really predict when that will be: lining up all the horses and starting can take a while and the Mossa can be repeated several times and, above all, it takes a while to empty a packed square.

Apart from the Palio race itself, the afternoon starts at 3.00/3.30 PM with the benediction of the horse and the jockey in each contrada church, a truly solemn moment. After the benediction, each contrada parades in its full costumes and flags down the street of Siena, stopping in Piazza Salimbeni, Casino dei Nobili, Chigi Saracini Palace and in Piazza del Duomo, waving flags and drumming. Choose one of these stops, and secure a space to have a good view (we choose Piazza Salimbeni standing on the steps of the central statue and we had a very good view).

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Then, at around 4.30 PM the procession leaves the Piazza del Duomo and heads for Piazza del Campo. By pure chance we went up the tiny Via del Castoro and at the end of this street, just before the arch, it’s where the parades gather before entering Piazza del Duomo so you can get a few nice shots before entering the square.

Choosing to follow the parade means that you will not be able to secure a good place in Piazza del Campo but that’s a choice, of course; we found the parade in the streets absolutely fascinating and worth watching. The streets were busy but if you feel too congested just take a side road and it will be almost empty. We followed the parade, took our time in the streets and then head down to Piazza del Campo. As expected, all the accesses (it was gone 6 PM) were already closed. We heard that the last access to be open was Via Dupre’ and we headed there. Surprisingly, there was almost no queue and we were able to easily enter the access and in a matter of seconds we found ourselves right in Piazza del Campo with definitely a great view to take a couple of pictures!

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We stayed a while in the square, enjoyed the historical parade and then, right before they closed the access at 6:45 PM, we sneaked out and headed to the contrada dell’Istrice, in a bar where we had booked a table to watch the Palio. We are still learning about Palio and having someone (in our case, the bar owner) explaining you what’s exactly going on is absolutely essential, otherwise you will probably miss the most of it. In this sense, hiring a guide for the Palio is definitely a great idea and highly recommended if you want to have some proper background and detailed notions on the Palio tradition.

As I said, the fact that la Lupa won caused a massive meltdown in the people of the Istrice contrada. In a matter of seconds, Via Camollia (the hearth of Istrice contrada) got exceptionally quiet and silent, and you could distinguish from afar a steady and almost compact flow of people coming up the street heading towards Porta Camollia. By that time we were standing outside the bar finishing our drinks and as soon as the Istrice contradaioli (all clearly recognizable by their scarf with the contrada colours) were coming closer it became obvious that a lot of them were in tears. I suppose we were not expecting anything like that and the bar owner must have seen our puzzled faces and promptly explained us that for the Istrice contrada it was an absolute travesty that their rival had won, not so much that they didn’t win the Palio.

Since I have been in Tuscany I have always liked people from Siena: from the experiences we had, they are generally very chilled out, relaxed and friendly with tourists/outsiders but the Palio definitely changes people and on Saturday in Siena there was a weird atmosphere: people were obviously getting ready for the big event with families and group of friends alike gathering in and around Piazza del Campo but throughout the day we approached 5/6 different groups of people and every time answers to our questions were very quickly dismissed and cut short or answered in bad manners. At a certain point, I had the feeling that tension was becoming almost rudeness (not all of the Senesi, but I am sure it was not a case).

With the end of the Palio days, it was absolutely clear one thing to me: the Palio belongs to Siena and the Senesi. That’s it. Of course you/we can attend the event and watch it, either in the square or paying hundreds of Euros to watch it more comfortably from a palco or balcony seat but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean anything: for us (not Senesi) Palio is a mere festival, a celebration. For them, it’s a completely different story: tradition, passion and pride.

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Nevertheless, it has to be experienced, at least once in a lifetime.

 

Heading to Siena this summer? The Palio days will take place again from August 13th to August 16th (Palio race), with the same schedule. If you are visiting, have a look at my other post to find out the most interesting facts about the Palio and the trials.

 

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