A 90-second horse race that lasts forever

There are events that we experience and we are able to describe and explain, trying to convey feelings and emotions so people that have not attended them can get as close as they can to the situation.

And then there is Palio.

I thought I could actually describe Palio (and I tried, with my two previous posts) but the reality is that, for much details and information you provide, no one can really explain the essence of Palio.

I am not from Siena and I have moved to the area very recently so I definitely have no presumption on this subject but I know one thing: as soon as you step in Piazza del Campo on the Palio race day and you lift your eyes to the balconies, the windows, the roofs or any other opening, jammed with people flagging the contrada colours, you cannot feel anything else than tension. Multiply that for a thousand times and I think you can get a rough idea of what contradaioli experience during the Palio days – better said, throughout the whole year.

One the day of the Palio (July 2nd and August 16th) the historical parade goes on for a time that feels almost interminable, just adding more suspense and expectation to the race itself.

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Historical parade

Then the Palio (a silk hand painted drape, dedicated to the Madonna di Provenzano in July or the Assumption of Mary in August) enters, greeted and waved by thousands; at the end of the day that is why everyone is gathering in Piazza del Campo twice a year.

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Palio entering Piazza del Campo

When the last access to the square from Via Dupre’ is closed (usually half an hour before the race starts), that’s it: you are locked in.

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View of Piazza del Campo

At that point the square is still noisy and constantly moving, people trying to gain a good spot for a better view particularly of the Mossa area, where fate is decided.

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Palio of August 16th, 2016 hanging next to the Mossa

As soon as the white envelope containing the starting order appears and goes from the Mossa down to the hands of the Mossiere, the square suddenly fells to a surreal silence. If there is still someone chatting, people will immediately shout for silence.

The starting order is called out by the Mossiere, accompanied with the usual cheers or boos from the crowd (and plenty of swearing too), depending on whether their contrada is next to an ally one or a rival.

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Mossiere

At this point, the die is cast. Being a good jockey and having a good horse is not enough. Strategies, silent agreements, threats and bribes play an equally important part (have a look at my previous post for more details).

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Horses and jockeys aligned at the Mossa, between the canapi (ropes)

The run-in horse gives the start to the other 9 and, unless the Mossa (the start) has to be repeated for irregularities (which happens often, and more than once), 90 seconds is all the race lasts.

Imagine a whole year condensed in these 90 seconds and you might be able to understand what follows….

What happens next is even more striking. The winning horse (and the jockey) gets literally sucked in a flow of people that, with the horses still running, climb over the fences, frenzied and I would say almost possessed. The winning horse is kissed and profusely hugged and the jockey is lifted above the crowd and he will stay there for few hours, carried around the city and brought up to the Duomo (in August).

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In the meantime in the square you will see a bit of everything: people screaming and throwing themselves to the ground being literally dragged out by their friends (because their rival contrada won), people crying of joy and restlessly hugging other contradaioli around because their contrada won two Palio in a year (La Lupa, this year), people rushing to the fences, falling down and pushing as fast as they possibly can to reach the winning horse/jockey….

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And the Palio? Those that have not rushed to get the jockey up in the air have literally climbed up the Mossa to get the Palio down. The Palio is then taken on a procession (with the jockey) to the Duomo, through the streets of Siena and then to the tiny church of the winning contrada where its contradaioli (and not only them) pay respect. Pictures, selfies, smiles and plenty of tears, again.

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Church of contrada La Lupa with the Palio won in July and August 2016
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Palio of August 16th, 2016

 

Still think that this is just a 90-second horse race…?

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How to hire a car without the feeling of being ripped off (and a few more tips!)

Anywhere in the world, hiring a car (or a moped or anything else that moves) is definitely one of the best ways to get around and know the country you are visiting. Though I can see many positives in exploring a country by public transport (one above all: getting more in contact with local people by using their same means of transport), there are some places where hiring a car is definitely the best decision: you are completely flexible and able to reach quiet and unspoiled spots. Tuscany is definitely one of those places. Whilst Florence, Siena, Pisa and are easy to reach by using public transport, for many destinations, a car is almost a must: Val d’Orcia, San Gimignano, Monteriggioni etc. Though doable, visiting Tuscany by train and bus can be a bit challenging and sometimes frustrating. Not impossible, but definitely a bit more hard work especially if you want to get off the beaten track.

For this reason, I feel like hiring a car is the best option if you are planning to spend some time in Tuscany. I have been hiring cars both for business trips and during holidays for many years now in Italy, Spain, UK and USA and luckily (fingers crossed) I only had a couple of unpleasant situations but on plenty of occasions I have found myself struggling to get a decent car without feeling to be ripped off at the counter. 😦

What to keep in mind:

  • Discounts, Avios etc: check if with your airline you are entitled to some discounts or if, for being a customer of a specific airline, you have some additional benefits (you may be entitled to use them even though you have not flown with them when hiring a car). An example: Iberia was offering a free additional driver to any Iberia Plus member which is definitely a big saving since generally an additional driver is around Eur 10 per day (I used Easyjet to fly to Pisa and then hired with Avis, using the promotion). On top of that, airlines generally offer very good reward programs if using their partner hire company (Iberia/British Airways partner with Avis). Sometimes, paying a bit more for your rental definitely gives you more benefits 🙂

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  • Go safe: Hertz, Europecar, Avis etc….they are all big names and generally they are synonymous of good service (and generally they charge more!). More staff at their desks (you don’t want to queue for ages after a flight!), more cars available in their parking lots and more offices around the country in case you are planning to pick up a car and drop it off somewhere else. On one occasion where I rented with a smaller company (Locauto), I had to change the car I was hiring and, though I gave 4 days notices to the company, they couldn’t find me any another car in any of their other offices located in 3 different airports so I had to stick with the one I had.
  • Credit card: when it comes to hire a car, companies always ask for a credit card. They may accept a debit card  but always check in advance in order to avoid last minute surprises. In both debit or credit card, they will “block” a considerable amount on your account until the car is returned (“deposit”). Amount varies according to the class of vehicle rented. Take that into account since the money they put on hold won’t be available for you to spent until they release it (which generally is a few days after the rental contract is concluded). Also, in case of presenting a debit card, they might “force” you to take their own insurance – see next point.
  • Insurance: this is a difficult point and I can only tell my personal experience. I am fully recommending insurance4carhire (Car Hire Excess Insurance) that I have been using for over 3 years because 1) I had a claim for a car hire in Spain and the full sum was promptly refunded, 2) it’s a huge saving compare to the full insurance that the rental company offer and above all 3) I feel definitely much safer than going without insurance. For the newbies: when you hire a car, it always come with an excess that means the amount of money that – in case of accident/damage etc – you will have to pay to the car rental company (each company has its own excess amounts). With insurance4carhire, in case of accident/damage, you will pay upfront the excess stated in you rental agreement to the car hire company but the amount will be reimbursed by your insurance soon afterwards (you will have to fill in some forms and submit pictures). If you hire a car a couple of times a year, the saving is impressive since their current insurance for 1 year in Europe is £39,99 (unlimited number of rentals for a max of 60 days each, up to £6,500 excess on damage and theft plus plenty more cover). Definitely worth having a look at the website – especially if you compare it with the insurance offered by any rental company! Claiming is pretty easy and straightforward and their customer assistance was extremely helpful. Note: at the moment, to purchase this policy you must be resident of the UK, The Netherlands, France, Spain, Italy or Germany. I am sure that for residents of other countries there will be similar insurance company.

Just a couple of final rules to keep in mind before setting off – valid with any car rental, regardless of their name/reputation…

1) It is widely known that, as with everything (restaurants, hotels etc), car rental companies try to get rid first of the less appealing cars or that have got some issues (as small as the issue may be). So, if you are not happy with the car you have been given, politely complain; I am not a pain but I believe that if I pay for something (and sometimes car hire is a fortune!), it needs to be in good condition – it doesn’t matter if I am hiring a Fiat Panda or a Mercedes (the former is more likely!). On several occasions, I have been offered cars not cleaned, with seat belt broken, external fuel cap missing etc. I have learnt to polite refuse the car and try to get another one; it takes minutes and it saves you some hassle later, particularly if you plan to rent the car for more than just a couple of days.

2) Check the car extremely carefully, no matter if the car rental guy is packed with other customers waiting after you. Take your time and check everything, particularly wheels, bumpers, extra wheel and fuel (ask for full and bring it back full). Rushing may cost you money if you miss any existing damage. If there is any existing damage when you pick up the car, check that the car rental staff notes it in your contract and always take pictures of the damage.

3) Always keep the car hire contract in the car!

4) For as much a Fiat 500 looks extremely Italian and cool to hire, remember a couple of things:

a) many Tuscan roads (particularly to reach agriturismo or remote locations) are called “strada bianca” (white road, which basically means unpaved). A Fiat 500 is perfect for the city but not so much for driving off-road and on particularly winding roads (also not great if you are planning long driving throughout the region). 2) the boot is minimal so make sure you can fit your luggage in it before setting off, leaving nothing on display (see next point).

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Fancy a drive off-road and uphill? Make sure you hire the right car! (image from Pixabay)

5) This has always been my first rule since I had a car and even though I am perfectly aware that Tuscany countryside is not Milan (at all!!) or any other big city, it’s always worth remembering an Italian saying that goes “L’occasione fa l’uomo ladro” (that is more or less “opportunity makes the thief”). So, avoid leaving anything on display inside the car and – even worse – open the boot full of luggage in public spaces and then leave the car unattended (this to be particularly avoided in service areas on the motorway). When you leave the car, even though you have locked it remotely, double check the doors to make sure it’s properly closed (thieves do inhibit the transmission of your car remote control and when you think you have closed it,  in reality it’s still open…and it’s not a metropolitan legend, promise!). It literally takes a second and saves more pain later and, as always, better safe than sorry!

 

Other than that…get your Sat Nav set on your next destination and safe travels! 🙂

 

 

(Featured image from expedia.com)