The Palio 2014
July 7, 2014
Hubby and I have just returned from our second holiday in three weeks. I could get used to a one week on one week off kind of flexitime. But the main reason for this second jaunt was to see the Palio; the bareback horse race around the central square in Siena. But this is no simple horse race. This is a horse race steeped in tradition and pageantry and machismo and dates back for nigh on 400 years or so. One thing it is not is a contrivance for tourists. In fact they make no concessions for tourists with no readily available timetables, information or announcements. Everyone who matters (the locals) know exactly what happens when and where and exactly what you should be doing.
Siena, a beautiful walled city, is divided in to 17 districts (contrada) represented in colours and symbols and the residents of that district are baptised in to it. They each have a chapel, a social club and a museum. All the boys of Siena must learn to play the drum and do flag throwing and they are taught this in their contrada throughout the year. Only the two best flag throwers from each contrada will represent them in the Palio parades (and compete for the title of ‘Most elegant’), along with one drummer. The parade on the day of the Palio is two hours of non stop pageantry, flag throwing, trumpeting and men in tights.
For each Palio only 10 contrada will race. The other seven will automatically compete next year and then three are randomly drawn to make up the ten. Only those competing in the Palio are allowed to decorate their contrada with the flags and tapestries representing them. As you walk around Siena it is like being in an opera set with these wonderful buildings dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries bedecked with colourful flags and lamps which are only displayed for the four days of the Palio. The morning after they have all disappeared except in the winning contrada. Similarly the residents wear their contrada colours and scarves. But this is Italy so it’s not a football scarf, it is a square of silk worn usually as a triangle around the neck.
It is such a mental experience. The maddest race I have ever known. Horses (no thoroughbreds allowed) are randomly allocated to each contrada and they hire a jockey to ride it. They raise money all year to pay for the best jockey they can as he’s going to be riding in the race having only just met the horse three days before. (And it is ‘he’ except once in 1957 a woman was chosen as she had been the stunt double in a Hollywood film that featured a woman jockey in the Palio so a contrada chose her to ride for them.) Then there are a morning and evening trial race in the over the next three days until the Palio itself.
On the first training race we saw – with a fantastic view from an apartment balcony – by far the best way to watch the Palio if you can – we didn’t understand the rules and thought the blue and white jockey was unable to line up and causing havoc as the other horses got jumpy and fretful pushing against the rope that is the starting line. When they did finally set off, the rope did not fall cleanly to the ground and horses got their legs tangled in it falling over and throwing their riders off.Others fell off round the tight bends and one was running with his horse down the back straight until he eventually remounted.
But we discovered that in fact the horses line up according to the draw that is made at the start of the race.The final horse then does not have to line up until he wants to. And in fact may take ten minutes, half an hour, an hour until he decides to. Once he waited so long it had got dark and the race was abandoned! The tension at this point is incredible. Silence from the huge crowd as the horses start champing at the bit, and jockeys can use their whip on each other and each other’s horses. This is a no holds barred kind of race. And then the final jockey decides to go and a huge firework is let off to start the race. Three bareback laps of a tiny, tight bend, sloping track with I don’t know how many people yelling them on.
And then the winner crosses the line, and another huge firework explodes and everyone runs on to the track. The winning contrada immediately goes to claim the Palio itself – a silk hand painted banner that hangs near the equivalent of a royal box – they climb up and pull it down and then parade with their horse back to the stable.
There are no announcements at all. This is all a well-rehearsed machine oiled over the centuries. The drummer of the winning contrada was overcome with emotion, sobbing in to his velvet tabard. And everyone sang. Just like they had sung every day leading up to the race. Just like they sang at the end of the contrada dinner we went to. And at the horse blessing we went to. And you could feel this was where opera is at home. The incredible set, the drama, the tears, the big Italian voices soaring in to the sky. Nessun dorma indeed.