Friday, 16 August 2013

Palio di Siena ...or how can your cookery holidays in Italy end up on a magnificent race?

Minutes are just minutes, but sometimes a couple of minutes are more important than others: 19.00, Siena, 16th August. An explosive charge detonation will echo across Piazza del Campo, and the thousands of people standing by will know that what they were waiting for is about to begin.

The medieval Palio horserace.

Three laps, less than two minutes. But behind these two minutes is more than 350 years of tradition. More than a simple medieval race, it is a traditional rooted manifestation of the long standing competition and rivalry between the 17 contrade (districts in which Siena is divided) and the expression of the pride, the passion and the devotion of the fervent contradaioli (residents of the districts).

The Palio is held twice a year and lasts four days, from June 29 to July 2 and from August 13 and 16: with Flavours cooking holidays you can have the chance to visit Siena during these fervent and cheerful occasions. 

The palio event involves lots of work during the year before these two minutes, but of course the 4 days of celebrations are the fullest of formal and informal rituals, in which each contrada develops a strategy based on a mix of antagonism, horsemanship, resentment, alliances and clandestine meetings. 

In fact, in the Palio part of the game is for the contrade to prevent their historic rivals from winning and this result is celebrated as happily as an own victory. The riders are allowed to use their nerbi (whips) to distract other horses and jockeys (who ride bareback). It is not uncommon for rider-less horses to finish the race but this does not matter after all, since the winner of the palio is the horse, representing his contrada, and not the jockey. 

The winner is awarded with the palio itself, which is a hand-painted silk banner, the same prize of the tournaments during the Middle Ages. And who loses? Unlike the usual way of thinking, the loser of the race is not the contrada whose horse comes last, but the one that comes second (an interesting point of view, don’t you think?). 

In each race just 10 of the 17 contrade take part in the race, seven by right and three by draw, however all of them give their own contribution to the spirit of the palio. Above all what makes the palio so special are the manifestations that are connected to the contrade, for example the blessing of horses and jockeys the afternoon before the race.

In fact each contrada has its own government, coat of arms, emblem and colours, headquarters, patron Saint, church and festivities. In addition to historic allies and enemies, of course. The spirit of the contrade is what animates the event and gives such pathos and enthusiasm to the event. The contrade are:

AQUILA (eagle)
BRUCO (caterpillar)
DRAGO (dragon)
GIRAFFA (giraffe)
ISTRICE (porcupine)
LEOCORNO (unicorn)
LUPA (she-wolf)
NICCHIO (seashell)
OCA (goose)
ONDA (wave)
PANTERA (panther)
SELVA (wood)
TARTUCA (tortoise)
TORRE (tower)
VALDIMONTONE (valley of the ram)

The pageant before the race attracts visitors from all over the world and it is a marvellous historical parade of rich and bright medieval costumes dating back to 15th century. Musicians, flag-bearers and historical political figures, representatives of the contrade (the ones who run the race come first, with pages bearing festoons of laurel leaves) and at the end comes the carroccio, a chariot which carries the four public representatives of yore with the most sought after award: the palio. When the magnificent parade has slowly gone around the square, the colourful performance of the flag wavers accompanies the spectators in the final minutes before the horses appear, this increases the crowds sense of expectation and anxiety. And then, here we are, these famous two minutes arrive, the crowd shouting, the city seems to shake.

Who is going to win?Maybe it will be the successful Oca to add this years palio to the 63 it already owns?Or maybe the unlucky Lupa, the current nonna (‘granny’, the nickname given to the contrada that has not won the palio for the longest amount of time), will be the one to show the silk banner in its museum? 

At the end of the day, even when parts of Siena are competing against each other, this marvellous city will always be the winner.

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