Monday, 9 July 2007

Siena Palio: Part 3

Finally, it is Palio race day!

Since we didn't have to return our car until 9:30 we thought we might as well sneak in the 9am trial race. Unknown to us this is called the 'bad' trial because the jockeys save the horses for the race that evening, so it wasn't the most exciting of races, but still fun to watch.

After returning our car we didn't get up to much because we too were 'saving ourselves' for the Palio.

In the afternoon before the race the horses are blessed in the chapel of each Contrada (If the horse craps in the church it is considered a good omen). We decided we would support the Civetta (Owl) contrada because that is the neighborhood in which we were staying, which seemed like as good as reason as any, and we watched as their horse was blessed and they set out on the subsequent parade.

Each Contrada puts together a procession made up of locals in period costume, drummers, flag wavers and, of course, the horse. They march to the Duomo and perform for the judges who award a prize for the best procession and flag waving display. It is all taken very seriously, although you wouldn't guess it from the funny wigs and costumes.

After watching a bit of this we headed down to il Campo to find ourselves a spot to sit and wait for the start of the race, which was still several hours off.

Before the race the procession wound its way into the square, including not only the Contrade but numerous other groups as well as the Palio itself (a silk banner painted by a 'famous artist') mounted on a wagon pulled by 6 giant white oxen.

Finally the track was clear of the procession, the Carabinieri led a dramatic charge around the track with swords drawn, explosions boomed around the square to ensure everyone was wide awake, and the slightly terrified horses (and jockeys) were led onto the track.

Then followed a number of rounds of the horses failing to line up properly, false starts and confusion before the starter finally declared the race ready to begin and the 10th horse charged from behind to start the race.

After this point it's a little difficult to say what happened. All we know is that at some time during the race three of the jockeys fell off (amid all the other insanity, the race is bareback (actually not much of an impediment as a horseless rider can win)), three laps were completed and explosions boomed around the square again to signal that the race was over. It turns out no-one else knew what happened either as there followed a protracted period of confusion as the victory was awarded first to one Contrada and then another. 

In the end it was the Contrada of the Oca (Goose) that was declared the winner (later, after watching the race replayed in an endless loop on Siena TV, we still had no idea what happened to our Owl). The winning Contrada marched around the square drumming and chanting late into the night and it was a very quiet Siena the next morning, clearly holding its head after a big night.

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