Siena for a day

Thursday last week we visited Siena. It was a week before the Palio and the clay track had been laid over the cobbles in the Campo and the tiered seating was in place around the edge of the Campo.

At 3pm, when we arrived, the businesses around the Campo were shut as the Palio track was being watered – a daily ritual in the week leading up to the Palio. This threw our plans of a quiet drink in the Campo into disarray.

So instead we visited Jean’s favourite clothes shop and helped boost the Siena economy – just as we had done in Rome a week before.

Shopping done, we returned to the Campo.  The track watering was complete and the bars and restaurants in the Campo had the “all clear” to lay out tables and chairs on the clay track. Normal transmission had resumed.

We wiled away the evening with drinks and a very good pasta dinner at Al Mangia bar before heading back to Diaccino.



The day we didn’t get thrown out of the Palio

Some of you may recall a previous post where Jean and I, and the dogs, were ejected from the Palio rehearsal back in early July and ended up walking through Siena in the rain feeling dejected, wet and alone. Not our finest moment.

Well there is a second Palio held each year in August. The very helpful family that own our cottage reminded us of this earlier in the week. They said it was busier than the July Palio and that there are rehearsals every morning at 9am (not really something we could contemplate) and at 7pm for the 3 days preceding the actual Palio race.

Here was our opportunity for redemption.

We planned this like a military operation. We knew that we had to get into Siena early so we aimed for 3pm. No dogs – sorry girls. The bars around the Campo are forced to shut at 3:30pm until 5pm while the track is watered. They reopen between 5pm and 6pm and then close until the rehearsal is over at 8pm. So the plan:

1) a late lunch at a wee cafe off the tourist track from 3pm to 5pm

2) a drink or two at our favourite Campo bar from 5pm to 6:30pm

3) into the centre of the Campo where the viewing is free

4) watch the rehearsal

5) back to the bar for dinner and drinks and then home.

For once our planning worked perfectly. At 7pm we found ourselves in the centre of the Campo along with about 5000 other people. All crammed in waiting for – well we didn’t know quite what to expect but given the other 5000 people standing with us, it had to be worth watching – I guess.

We saw the preparation of the track, the parade of the officials and the parading of the mounted Carabineri. All leading up to the main event – the Palio horses and riders mock racing around the track for a lap or two before pulling up and then the final parade – each contrada and their horse as they left the Campo.

Jean was particularly taken with the cavalry who did a first lap at a stately trot in formation but for the second lap were at full gallop with swords drawn – a god old fashioned cavalry charge.

It was interesting to watch the children from the competing contrada who had a special section of the stands. The kids had no hestitation to “have a go” at their competitors in chants or gestures, winning the palio was everything – a far cry from the political correctness of our homeland where winners and losers are frowned on and simply being involved is rewarded.

During the rehearsal race one of the Palio jockeys fell from his horse and was taken away by ambulance. As always the riderless horse kept racing but it shows the danger involved for both horse and rider on the narrow, tight Palio track. Particularly harrowing are the two 90 degree turns which, when taken at full speed are recipies for disaster.

After the rehearsal it was a drink and dinner, and then home. On the walk to our car we passed one of the contrada dinners. It was held in one of the main streets of Siena that had been closed for the occasion. And that’s what the Palio is really about – building and maintaining communities.

Update below pictures.

Update: The race the next day was won by the Giraffe Contrada – the red and white jockey in the photos. Four horses fell on the final lap however it appears none were seriously injured. There is ongoing controversy about animal welfare issues and the Palio. Despite there being a number of changes made over the last few years to make the race safer almost every year there are horses injured or killed. Interestingly the Palio was recently removed from the list of nominated Italian world heritage events as it was felt the backlash from animal rights groups could impact on the chances of approval for all the events being nominated.

For our part, we watched the race on TV the next day and agree with the animal rights groups.

The day we got thrown out of the Palio

Saturday 2 July is the day of the Palio in Siena. The day horses representing the various contrada or districts of Siena race around the Campo for glory. We are heading south to Positano that day but were in Siena on Thursday evening and got wrapped up in the rehearsal for the Palio where they test the race track (and presumably the other things that go with the race).

Because the track runs through the various bars and restaurants that ring the Campo (yes, actually through their outdoor seating areas) they were all shutting early so the track could be cleared. The stands for spectators are behind the bars/restaurants and temporary grandstands had been in place for a week.

We had taken the dogs in with us so they could have their summer hair cuts and we were sitting in our favourite Campo bar when things started happening around us. Tables and chairs were being put away and last orders called – all at 6:30pm.

We knew the rehearsal was due to start at 7pm so we moved into the stands directly behind the bar and made ourselves comfortable. By this time, there were quite large crowds in the Campo, with groups supporting their contrada with songs, chants and general noisiness. It soon became apparent that the stands were all reserved, in fact quite large sums of money are spent to ensure a good spot.

A nice man explained that we were in the seats they had reserved but that we could move to the centre of Campo where viewing was free. We took the hint and moved – us, the dogs and associated paraphernalia out of the stands, across the track and into the central area.

The view wasn’t quite as good but the crowd was friendly and the dogs were settling. Within minutes, two things happened. Firstly we felt the first few raindrops that can signal a Tuscan downpour and secondly some polite officials told us that dogs were not allowed at the Palio as they might scare the horses so we had to leave.

Clearly the god of the Palio wasn’t on our side.

We, once again, collected everything together and headed off. By this stage the crowd was huge and the exits were not easy to find. The track was close to being closed off and the rain had started to fall heavily. Also, did I mention the temperature was around 28 degrees and we were carrying the dogs so they didn’t get trampled underfoot?

We eventually found an exit and pushed, prodded, and poked our way through. We found a place to shelter from the rain but this was a token gesture as we were completely soaked – rain from outside and perspiration from within.

A soggy, hot walk to the car followed. It seemed we were the only people in Siena heading away from the Campo as we were passed by groups of laughing, happy and dry locals.

There is a second Palio in mid August and we are keen to attend – but we just need to get some tickets first. Sadly the girls get to stay home that day.

A weekend with Gill

Our dear friend Gill popped in for the weekend. It’s easy to say, but “popping in” meant a ridiculously early flight for Gill from the UK on Friday morning to Pisa where the entire Mowday clan went to pick her up.

It was great to see her and the girls got straight down to business. Three bottles of Moet disappeared almost immediately followed by a couple of bottles of Chardonnay (one a kiwi chardonnay saved especially for the occasion) over a dinner of Jeans famous roast chicken and potatoes. Suffice it to say Saturday started slowly in the cottage.

There was a little “pool time” and then dinner in the Campo at Al Mangia. Because the Campo is being prepared for the Palio on Saturday 2 July, barriers and stands are in the process of being erected and we had dinner in what is soon to be the middle of the racecourse on 3 inches of hard packed clay with race barriers on each side. Imagine having dinner on the finish line at Trentham racecourse and you’ll get the idea.

Dinner at Al Mangia sitting in the middle of the Palio track

All around us Campo life continued as always with bars and restaurants doing their usual business – but all in slightly surreal surroundings. It wasn’t quite what we expected or had planned. Jean being the control freak she is spent the first 15 minutes saying “this isn’t right, no, this isn’t right” repeatedly and wanting them just to “put it back the way it was” but Gill pointed out it was a truly unique experience. A couple of bottles of wine and an excellent meal helped everyone mellow somewhat.

We will see Gill and family again in late July and can’t wait.