Race day. July 2, 2017. I was a Tartuca and we had Gigi as our jockey. Gigi has 13 wins to his credit, the second most in history. He also has a horse that is “damn fast,” as I was told by one of the waiters in our hotel who was a fellow Tartuca. The outlook for a history-making 14th victory for Gigi and the 47th win for Contrada Tartuca looked pretty good.
Our Jockey, Gigi riding by in the Pageant.
The race officially starts when it starts, but usually about 7:30 p.m., when the shadows of the buildings around the plaza shade the track in all the turns. However, prior to the 90-second, mad-dash race itself, a parade (called the Corteo Storico) in the Piazza del Campo entertains with a couple hours of historical pageantry complete with full medieval costume.
There are basically three options to see the race in person. First, for free in the center with 30,000 other folks who have stood in the sun for 8 hours to get a good spot. Second, buy tickets for the bleachers surrounding the track. Or third, know someone and get a balcony in one of the buildings. We opted for the bleachers, since free would have been miserable, and we didn’t know anyone in Siena. By the way, getting tickets and a hotel room months in advance is recommended. The place is sold out.
The assigned seats were situated well for the race, just before the tough 2nd turn. This downhill sharp right-hander has padded walls on the outside to soften the blow of slamming up against them I guess. I felt the padding. Barely better than a rock wall, but “barely” probably counts for something.
The seats were not-so-well situated when it came to shade. Being at the far eastern end of the plaza, the sun stayed with us until the final moments before the race. But having scouted this out ahead of time, I was prepared with sunscreen. “You must arrive early,” we were told…and so dutifully at 4:30 p.m. we arrived and took our seats awaiting a parade that would start at about 6:00 p.m.
The center of the square is a free place to watch the race. A mass of humanity crammed into a rough square about 200 yards on 3 sides and 150 yards on one side. That’s a trapezoid, I guess. Anyway, to get a place along the track in the center requires arriving before noon and probably keeping hold of the fence itself as more and more people cram into every available crack of space to get a spot with a view. Lief and I calculated (guesstimated) the infield at about 30-35,000 folks. The bleachers added another 5000 or so.
The Carabinieri on their leisurely stroll around the Plaza.
Before the incredibly fast, furious, and exceptionally short 90-second race, the Piazza del Campo is transformed into a 2-hour celebration of medieval glory. The pageant begins with a trot around the campo by the Carabinieri, equivalent to the federal police (or the FBI) in the U.S. These horseback officers take a leisurely lap, then, at the sound of a cannon shot, charge full speed for the second lap.
Our seats were 3 back from the dirt with only a thin rail between us and the action. The thundering hooves and blur of mounted riders a few feet from our faces were incredible. I imagined being on foot, as an infantry soldier might have been 400 years ago, as they rounded the bend at full speed. It would have been terrifying indeed.
Presentation of the colors prior to the race.
Because of the narrowness of the track, only 10 Contradas race in each event. The 7 neighborhoods not chosen for the July 2nd race are automatically entered into the August 16th race. Flag bearers lead the parade. Each Contrada includes an honor guard, a night in full armor, the jockey on mount, and the horse for the race led by an attendant. All 10 race Contradas come by with their horses, and the 7 who are not racing participate in everything except the racing.
The flag bearers pause to twirl and toss their colors high into the air before catching them under one leg and balancing for several twirls and spins. A drummer keeps the beat and a knight in full armor keeps watch.
The jockey leads the horse in full regalia and parades it for all to see. The symbol of the Contrada is shaved into the rump hair of the horse. It’s hard to see in the photo, but there is a Turtle shaved in.
The Tartuca symbol on the horse’s rear.
After the pageantry, the race is ready to be set up. Jockeys will ride bareback three laps around the track. Here’s an interesting point: The jockey does not win the race. The “colors” of the Contrada win the race, and the horse has the colors braided into its forehead mane. So, it is possible, though not likely, for a riderless horse to win the Palio.
The starting line is a rope on the far side of the square from our seats. But the distance isn’t too far and we can see it pretty well. There’s really not a bad seat in the house….from the bleachers, anyway.
We were pumped up. TARTUCA !!! TARTUCA !!! TARTUCA !!!
But something was wrong. Gigi, our record-winning jockey and horse would not line up at the starting line. Over and over again, Gigi tried to get the horse to the starting line, but the horse would shy away and run back. Gigi was having trouble controlling the skittish firebrand.
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As it turns out, the horse had a wound on the leg, near the hoof that was bleeding profusely. Whether caused in the stampede for position near the starting rope, or by some devious method to put him out of the race, in the end, Gigi and the horse withdrew from the race. Now that was a bummer for us, and a crushing blow for the Contrada Tartuca.
Now there are nine horses, and soon they have been called to the start. The “Rincorsa” hailing from the Onda Contrada is set loose to start the race. The Rincorsa is the wild card. This rider gets to set the exact timing of the start and can wait until an opponent’s horse is misplaced. Or perhaps they’ve been paid off to wait until your opponent’s horse has been misplaced. They rarely win, but are often the spoiler. In the link below, of the race itself, you can see the blue-and-white-striped jockey playing the game as he charges toward the line several times before actually starting the race.
Suddenly, the rope drops and the race begins. Charging horses. Crowds shouting. Jockeys tumbling off their horses. Then it’s over. The Giraffes, the painter’s guild, have won. Wow. Now crazy takes stage.
First lap coming into the tough turn.
2nd lap and riderless horse still competing.
We wisely stayed put while the post-race mayhem on the track built quickly. People were cheering, screaming, and racing around. As mentioned last week, we watched as one of the jockeys was whisked off right under our seats. Then, as the crowds on the track began to disperse, we did too.
Mayhem on the track.
Immediately after the race, the celebrations for the winning Contrada begin. The losers start the 365-day countdown until they get a chance at redemption.
The biggest loser this day was the Eagle. Coming in second place is absolute misery, the lowest of the low. Last place is far better than second place. But the saying, “No guts, no glory,” applies here well. The only way to win is to push hard, and if you don’t win, the likelihood of 2nd place is high.
The winning Contrada also pays a high price. Apparently, it costs millions of euros to win in the form of payments to jockeys, payoffs to other Contradas hoping to block opponents, winning celebrations, parties in the neighborhood, and other debts to be repaid for the lead-up to the grand event. This is all for the pride of winning. The formal prize is a plate that gets passed from Contrada to Contrada each year, and a painted silk “rag” called the Palio.
A few of the painted Palio’s hanging in the halls of Tartuca.
The race over, Lief, Kathleen, Joel, Rachel, and I headed over to a nice place for dinner, reservations made well ahead of time. The streets were packed with happy Giraffes…and sad Eagles, to be sure. But the mood was incredibly festive and celebratory. Dinner was great, and then we went back to the Hotel Athena for a good night’s rest. The last day of our time together in Tuscany was going to be a road trip to San Gimignano and Florence.
A road trip with Kathleen Peddicord and Lief Simon is sure to be interesting. We travel together perhaps once a year and it’s delightful. It’s also geeky. Kathy and I chase down the grammar rules and discuss obscure words and the like. Lief and I discussed real estate in Tuscany and the options for people to own a home there.
The movie Under the Tuscan Sun glamorizes to some extent the remodeling of an old villa, but it’s possible, and for many it’s a fun way to retire to Italy. For others, buying something ready-made is a better solution. The range of options is spectacular, and there’s probably something for everyone who wants to live in Italy
But road trips can be silly too. It turns out that four of us watched Hee Haw as kids on Saturday nights. It was either that or Lawrence Welk, right? Joel Nagel got us started with the lyrics to the now famous song, “Where oh where are you tonight,” and we all joined in to sing along. Everyone but 26-year-old Rachel Jensen that is, who had no clue what we were talking about or what we were singing. If you aren’t old enough to remember, or were perhaps a Welk fan, enjoy a sample here. HEEEEE HAAAAAW.
The Palio 2017 Gang in San Gimignano.
Florence and San Gimignano were great. The company even better, and the opportunity to see a Palio with good friends the best of all. Even though the Palio di Siena wasn’t on my bucket list originally, after seeing it, I added and crossed it off at the same time.
For a great summer vacation, medieval pageantry, and an atmosphere charged with electric fervor, the Palio is sure to be a hit.
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