An Italian “Tailgate” – The Palio di Siena (Part 3)​

(If you’d like to read about the lead up to the race, click here for Part 1…and here for Part 2)

As part of our Palio di Siena experience, we would partake and enjoy a meal in one of the neighborhoods on the night before the race. But we didn’t know which neighborhood or Contrada would be ours. This is a very special part of the event, because getting up close and personal with a Contrada before the race is super cool. It was also crazy fun observing the lead up to the main event, including blessings, speeches, and a ton of fight songs – more and more as the evening went on. Just like a tailgate.

Because we didn’t know our neighborhood beforehand, there was some excitement when we received our packets from the travel agent. Who were we going to be? What Contrada would become “our” neighborhood? Drum roll please? I’m not exaggerating. Your Contrada is critically important in Siena. It is who you are, after all.

Upon opening the packet, we took our first look. Inside the folder was a bandana of yellow, blue, and green with a turtle in the middle. We are now Tartucas! They represented sculptors in the ancient guild system.

An Italian “Tailgate”

The banner of the Tartuca.

An Italian “Tailgate”

Our race crowd at the Baptismal Fountain.

To be true to the Contrada, we made a pilgrimage to the fountain of the neighborhood. A baptism is the formal means of entry into a Contrada, but for us, a splash about in the fountain seemed to have the desired effect. We posed for the required photo-op and I also took time for a bit of slacklining on the chain.

An Italian “Tailgate”

 “Slacklining” the Tartuca chain. I’m so glad I didn’t break it.

We became official Tartucas! But maybe I’ve always been a Tartuca. Sculpting is the one activity I’ve kept coming back to in my mind for a retirement hobby. So maybe this was prophetic for me. I don’t know, but at least for the next few days I could live out my sculptor dreams as a Tartuca!!!

The Palio is much more than a horse race around the plaza. It is the day of expression for the ever-present rivalry and competition between the various Contrada. Part of the intrigue is the clandestine meetings between the Contrada leaders. If possible, a meeting with an allied opponent’s jockey is excellent. To persuade them to help your side is priceless. Well, actually there is a price…but if successful, it’s well worth it, of course.

Our rival Contrada are the Snails, tanners by trade. Even if we don’t win, but the Snails lose the race, the Tartucas will celebrate. A huge part of the race is to absolutely prevent your rival, in our case the Snails, from winning. This is on par with winning yourself. Jockeys can push, shove, and hit their fellow riders, do the same to the horses, or arrange with an ally to block your opponent’s horse at the beginning or during the race. Almost anything goes.

Sadly, the Snails are not racing in the July 2nd Palio, but they have won 51 races to our 46 in the recent historical record. Today we’ll make it 47 and inch our way closer to a record greater than that of our arch rivals.

An Italian “Tailgate”

The Snail, our centuries-old foe.

An Italian “Tailgate”

Snail Parade through the ancient streets.

Being that Siena is a hill town, our Tartuca neighborhood was fortunately located only about a half mile from our hotel. Knowing the way, we quickly made for the Prato di Sant’agostino to find our dinner seats. Our ticket was numbered in the low 1000s and we estimated about 1500-1600 seats in the plaza. Tourists and townsfolk together stretched along huge tables, family-style, for a 5-course tailgate party…. Italian style. The plaza finally filled up by 9:00 p.m. – right on time for a 7:30 p.m. scheduled dinner and the official start of festivities.

An Italian “Tailgate”

Dinner Ticket

An Italian “Tailgate”

Menu of the Evening

An Italian “Tailgate”

The jockey was eventually led into the area, surrounded by several very large, serious looking guys. These were his bodyguards. And then the officials of the Contrada, similar to a town council, filed in and took their places at the head table along with the parish priest. Blessings were said, and then, dinner was announced.

Course by course, dinner was served on cheap plastic plates while we sat in a plaza more than 2000 years old, a plaza where the celebration of the battle Montaperti over the Florentines likely took place in the year 1260. Kind of a weird juxtaposition actually. Anyway, who cares about the plates, the food was spectacular.

Thin, thin prosciutto slices and super ripe melon were passed along. A huge piece of lasagna came next that almost filled the plate…and then filled me up. Next, tender and juicy (and, yes, fatty) pork tenderloin. And bottles of wine. Lots of wine, all served by the teen-aged kids of the neighborhood who also made a pass between the tightly packed tables hocking Tartuca bandanas and flags. Festivities were rolling. Toasts were made to the Virgin Mary, the Contrada, the horse, and the jockey of course.

As discussed earlier, the jockey is considered by all to be a mercenary. He is hired to ride bareback around a small uneven square with tight turns. One of the turns is padded – I’m assuming this precaution taken is from past experiences. It is very common for jockeys to fall off, occasionally get trampled, and even once in awhile…be killed. Very mercenary like indeed.

While this is a dangerous sport, and the jockeys are paid well to win, they are also paid well to throw a race. Intrigue is part and parcel of the race. Hence, the body guards, to prevent a rival from “getting to” our jockey. So, I wasn’t sure I was going to be allowed up close to the head table to get a photo with Gigi, our jockey. Eventually I did, and I wished him a “Buona Fortuna.”

An Italian “Tailgate”

The Blessing of the Jockey Luigi Bruschelli.

An Italian “Tailgate”

Wishing Gigi “Buona Fortuna.”

Luigi Bruschelli, or “Gigi,” as he is called around Siena, is the jockey extraordinaire winner of 13 races between 1996 and 2012. This is the second-most in the 400-year-old history of the Palio.    Tomorrow he is going for a 14th win. But woe to him if he comes in second place. Second is the worst, far worse than last place, and very likely to get a jockey beat up.

So, Gigi, our jockey for Tartuca, faces a beating for a 2nd place, or the glory of victory and going down in the record books with a win. But either way, he gets $200,000 euros for running it.   Last week’s video of a jockey being swiftly escorted out of the plaza could have been for his work torpedoing the race for a different Contrada. Or he could have simply been the jockey who came in 2nd.

A 2015 documentary called, surprisingly, “Palio,” examines the race from the jockey’s point of view. It exposes the rough and tumble side of the race. It is essentially a look at Siena’s preservation of a guild culture into the 21st century. It’s a fascinating watch for the universal and classic themes of greed, pride, and above all, the call and need for a tribe. Rent it here on Netflix:

An Italian “Tailgate”

The documentary “Palio” cover.  Note the Tartuca flag in the background. Go Tartuca!!!!

The Dinner, a.k.a. tailgate party, dragged on, and on, and on. Dessert was held off, quite possibly in the same tradition of my dinner party experiences in Nicaragua. In Nicaragua, when the dessert is served, that is the cue to get ready to go home. It usually happens at 1:00 a.m. or later, so I wasn’t surprised that dessert was long in the offering, but even longer in the delivery.

As the evening continued into morning, I was turning into a pumpkin. I was worn out and decided to head back to the Athena Hotel for some sleep, if I could get some after 3 nights of jet lag. So, I left before I could try what I am sure was an amazing treat, the bavarese alla crema pasticciera.

I always enjoy a peek beneath the hood, so I slipped beside the kitchen and snapped a picture of work in progress. I also caught the happy looks of the clean-up crew, where I thanked the real workers getting the job done to feed 1500 people like clockwork. An amazing performance out of a tiny kitchen.

An Italian “Tailgate”

Tiny Kitchen cranking out 1500 meals.

An Italian “Tailgate”

The real workers who made it happen.

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On the way home, I had to pass through two other neighborhoods and wondered if anyone would give me crap about the Tartuca bandana tied around my neck. But no one seemed to care about a tourist sporting colors the night before the race. So I peacefully made my way through the tiny, ancient streets to the hotel where I turned in, ready for a solid night’s sleep – the first, hopefully, since arriving in Italy four days prior.

Next week I’m going to finally get to the race itself. It’s a fast and furious affair, but the pageant leading up to it is fantastic and deserves some airtime and a story of its own. To get a taste of the race itself, take a quick look at the James Bond clip from the movie, “Quantum of Solace.” In this scene, Bond actually comes up from tunnels beneath the Plaza del Campo into the middle of the Palio.

Here is the great 2-minute, 18-second, clip that brilliantly conveys the ferocity of the event:

Next week, the race. I promise.