A Horse Race in the Heart of Italy – The Palio di Siena

The Palio di Siena is a biannual event, occurring on July 2nd and August 16th, celebrated in the heart of Tuscany.  It is a bucket-list item for many, but for me was just something I thought would be great to see – and it was!  So, I guess it should have been on my bucket list after all.  Luckily, I can say it is crossed off now.

THE PALIO DI SIENA

The Tuscan hill town of Siena.

The Palio is really a pageant.  A grand, multi-day celebration of the Medieval heritage of Siena, in all its much-remembered glory.  It is also like the Kentucky Derby in tradition, pomp, and circumstance…but that is where the comparison quickly ends.

The Palio di Siena is older, much older…and far more intense.  While the Kentucky Derby is “gentile,” the Palio is rough and raw.  Think Medieval horse race with costumed pre-parades, complete with charging horses, knights in armor, archers of various types, swords for cutting, gutting, and slicing, maces for bashing, and flag bearers (the Alfieri) tossing and twirling with gusto, and you’ll have it about right.  And get this…the horse race itself has no rules. But more on that later.

Photo of an old poster in our hotel, The Athena, located perfectly just inside the old city walls.

Photo of an old poster in our hotel, The Athena, located perfectly just inside the old city walls.

The Palio di Siena began in the 1300s, when the nobles of each neighborhood, called a Contrada, wanted bragging rights about the fastest horse.  From there it evolved over time into a jousting tournament, buffalo-back racing, and even donkey racing, before becoming settled on a horse race around the Piazza del Campo in 1633.

The Piazza, or Campo (as it is referred to), is a square of exquisite beauty, framed by residential buildings, bars, restaurants, gelaterias, and the town hall with a clock tower.  An event that started about 700 years ago, only for noblemen, has become a horse race for the everyman of various guilds.

A Horse Race in the Heart of Italy – The Palio di SienaThe Piazza del Campo, town hall bell tower, and restaurants.The Piazza del Campo, town hall bell tower, and restaurants.

The craftsmen in each neighborhood of the town could put a man and horse in the race, and the Palio became something for the common man to enjoy a couple times a year.  Interestingly, because the race is religious in nature (named in honor of a painting, the Madonna of Provenzano), no betting is allowed.  But seeing that it’s a horse race, I’m betting that there’s still some betting going on.

But let me back up to when I accidentally first heard about the race, 13 years ago.  Carol, 2-year-old Amanda, and I were in Tuscany for a week, staying in an old castle nearby in the village of Strove, a quaint Tuscan town with a population of 100.  We were doing day trips out and about – one day we visited Siena.

Castel Pietraio in Strove, Italy, where we stayed and played in 2003

Castel Pietraio in Strove, Italy, where we stayed and played in 2003

Castel Pietraio in Strove, Italy, where we stayed and played in 2003

By the way, remember this fun fact: If you are OK with quirky lodging, staying in castles and old monasteries is the way to go in Italy and Spain.  The price is usually half or less of a “commercial” hotel, and these 1000-year-old abodes are phenomenal.  Called Paradores in Spain, and just simply castle hotels in Italy, check them out.  Some are even haunted…of course!

Visiting Siena for the day, with Carol and Amanda in 2003, was actually just a pilgrimage for cheese, specifically the pecorino made in the ancient tradition in the hills of Tuscany. Pecorino cheese is an incredibly flavorful, dried sheep’s milk cheese that, in many cases, is still communally made and then aged in cool cellars for a year or more, along hay-lined racks.  This exceptional cheese, the wines, and, of course, the cured meats like prosciutto, pancetta, and bresaola are what most people think of when they think of Tuscany.

While in Siena that hot summer day in 2003, I saw information about the race: The Palio.  So, while Amanda chased pigeons in the Piazza del Campo square before a gelato, I imagined coming back to Siena for the race someday.  Just one of those random thoughts…to perhaps act upon…if and when the time was ever right.

And so, it came to be.  Here and now, July 2017, I was in Siena for the Palio – a horse race for sure, but also so much more, with all the accompanying festivities, parades, dinners, and jocularity.

Getting there was a 36-hour adventure.  So, after an all-night flight and a 2-stop train ride connecting in Florence, I arrived in Siena at the Hotel Athena very hungry.  They have a restaurant at the hotel, and it’s actually quite good.  But in a flash, I remembered the cheese.   The pecorino sheep’s milk cheese.  So, after consulting with the front desk and receiving a map of Siena’s old city, I ventured out to find a supermarket for a 100% Italian dinner.

Getting lost is part of the adventure when exploring an ancient walled city with curved streets, tiny alleys, and dead ends at the top of long staircases.  But driven by the desire for prosciutto, pecorino, olives, grapes, and apricots, I found a grocery store.  Not the one they had marked on the map, but one with all the needed items for the perfect “Welcome to Italy” dinner.   Footnote:  The leftovers also make for a great midnight snack in bed when jet lag kicks in.

Castel Pietraio in Strove, Italy, where we stayed and played in 2003An Italian feast.

Castel Pietraio in Strove, Italy, where we stayed and played in 2003

Hey! Is that hay on my cheese?  

Midnight snack in bed.

Midnight snack in bed.

So, after being awake from 2:00 a.m. until first light, just before 5:00 a.m., I got up and took a walk.  The reward was a mist-enshrouded city and totally empty streets.  The light was great.   The silent walk down the meandering, ancient streets was a blessing after the hustle and bustle of airports, train stations, and herds of people the day before.  I found the Church of St. Augustine across town and noted the route I had taken for later.  The one other thing I wanted to see in Siena was the mummified head and thumb of St. Catherine!

Duomo di Siena.

Duomo di Siena.

Duomo from St. Augusto.

Duomo from St. Augusto.

Church of St. Augustine.

Church of St. Augustine.

While exploring the city, I also stumbled across a statue of a Sallustio Bandini, outside what I later learned is the oldest bank in the world, the Monte dei Paschi, founded in 1472.  What caught my eye in the quiet square that morning was the inscription on the base of a statue.  It was, of course, in Italian writing, which I attempted to understand – and to my pleasant surprise, did fairly correctly, when later in the day our walking guide confirmed the translation.

Economic Liberty Champions Sallustio Bandini; Lief Simon, Joel Nagel, Mike Cobb, and Kathie Peddicord.Economic Liberty Champions Sallustio Bandini; Lief Simon, Joel Nagel, Mike Cobb, and Kathie Peddicord.Economic Liberty Champions Sallustio Bandini; Lief Simon, Joel Nagel, Mike Cobb, and Kathie Peddicord.

Consumer Resource Guide

Here was a priest who, unlike the “liberation theologists” of today, made pronouncements about economic liberty as the cause and basis of prosperity for the people.  How refreshing.   Later in the week, I returned with Joel Nagel, Kathie Peddicord, and Lief Simon for a photo in the square dedicated to a man who understood that a foundation of economic liberty creates wealth, while redistribution simply destroys it.  Well done and well said, Sr. Bandini.

Next week, we get ready for the race with the horse lottery and Contrada dinners in the days leading up to the mad dash around the square.  Exciting stuff, so stay tuned!