The other night we caught the bus to Fiesole to watch a concert in the roman amphitheater. It was a beautiful night out and we were both very happy and relaxed after drinking a hot chocolate in the cafe overlooking Florence.
[the maestro takes a bow]
While catching the bus home we were befriended by an elderly American couple who make an annual habit of traveling in Europe - last year was Spain. They had just arrived and wanted to know where we would recommend going in Florence. Linda and I were a bit stumped because we've been here long enough its difficult to mention one or two things to name as highlights. Having just watched sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo we mentioned that, but actually what I really felt was that if you only have a bit of time here you should head to Siena and the surrounding countryside.
[view from our hotel room]
Looking at Siena on a map you can see just how centrally located it is within Tuscany. To the North you have the Chianti region, Florence, Pisa and Lucca. To the West is San Gimignano and Volterra. To the South/East is Abbazia di San Galgano. And to the South/West is Montalcino, Montepulciano, Pienza and Abbazia di Sant Antimo along with le Crete and Val d'Orcia. While we had visited many of these places in previous trips, this time we would see the rest. Most importantly, however, we would be in Siena for il Palio!
[jockeys lining up]
For anyone not familiar with the Palio, it is a traditional horse race run twice a year (in July and August). In Siena there is 17 neighborhoods, or Contrade, which are passionately competitive. Ten of these Contrade are picked to run in each Palio. The Palio is assuredly the focus of the year for the Sienese and, subsequently, there is a huge release of emotion at its conclusion, especially for the winning Contrada.
[il Campo filling up]
We arrived in Siena on Saturday in time to catch one of the Prova (trial races). I'm still not entirely clear on the purpose of these trials, as they don't appear to affect the outcome of the final race, but that certainly isn't the only thing that is unclear in the Palio and it is best not to get too caught up in trying to understand such details (we've read books, watched a movie and now actually been there but still don't really understand it).
[the crowd holding its breath]
Anyway, we sat in il Campo and watched the square fill up with people until finally the race was due to start. There was much commotion, a false start, and finally the race was underway. The horses raced around the track at breakneck speed, and the clay surface and tight corners don't exactly guarantee an elegant contest, but this time at least there was no actual casualties. The locals from the winning Contrada rushed onto the track to surround their horse and maul the poor jockey.
[off and racing!]
After the race we returned to the same Trattoria we had been so pleased with last time we were in Siena and had another delicious meal before heading off to bed for a planned early start the following morning to pick up our rental car and head off into the Tuscan countryside.
[the jockey in for a mauling]