Sometimes in life there are days almost too comical to recount. But, for the sake of brevity and duty I intend to try.
Yesterday began with a quick breakfast before we headed to the train station in central Florence to catch out train to Siena. An hour and a half and some beautiful countryside later we arrived at our destination. A short while (and many escalators-Siena train station feels, from a geographical perspective, like it has been located in the core of the earth) later and we were sipping beer in a delicatessen whilst waiting for our dinner rolls to be prepared (the owner apologised for his gruffness but said it was one of the most important days of the year and nerves were understandably frayed).
After wandering through the streets and soaking up the carnival atmosphere that is pre-Palio (Siena’s twice yearly famous bare back horse race) we arrived at the restaurant my stepfather had booked for lunch and took our seats outside on the terrace. Which is where the fun really began, as my mother saw fit not only to inform us olives turned into grapes somewhere along the manufacturing line (and I wondered where I got my gullibility-not wondering any more), but also that she had always rather liked the idea of being a nudist (“unencumbered by clothes”) – just what you want your boyfriend to hear during a family meal.
After lunch we made our way through the back streets to the cathedral where we visited some relics and watched the various parishes who would be taking part in the race parade with their flag bearers and other accoutrements.
At 5pm we began the queue into the central square to find a spot from which we could observe the race. Fortunately the area we picked was mostly in shade-whilst it was delightful to have sun at Glasto nothing could prepare our pasty skin for the onslaught of true Tuscan sun-so we sat out the next three hours in relative comfort (save for the thousands of people all around, and one particularly nauseating couple in front of us who seemed incapable of not being attached by the lips at all times).
After much waiting around and several false starts the horses were off, and in three short laps it was all over, with three of the ten jockeys being unseated. Then came the real fun (were I speaking to you at this point you’d be hard pressed not to notice the sarcasm in my voice), as we tried to scale a four foot wall to beat the crowd out of the enclosure. The sight of my 66 year old mother revealing her knickers to the world and screaming “I can’t do it!” as she clambered over, followed by my boyfriend’s whispered comment of “II totally just groped your mum by the way” were matched in the bizarre stakes only by mum’s enjoyment of my drum and bass music as we slightly tipsily shared my headphones on the train home afterwards. In short, an odd but supremely enjoyable day out a la famiglia.
I remember the first time I went to the famous Palio horse race in Siena in Italy. I must have been about six years old, and was on holiday with my mum, my stepdad and my best friend and her family. Siena itself is a lovely place to behold, but when this race comes to town – as it does twice every year, once in July and once in August – it’s something else. Thousands of people line the streets, many waving flags in support of their horse –each of which represents a parish of Siena. The supporters walk through the city towards the central square (in reality more of a concave ‘shell’), filling it up to capacity before the race begins – which it does amidst much pomp and ceremony.
The race is over in seconds – it really is a blink and you’ll miss it affair – but whilst it’s a fantastic spectacle the thing that’s always captivated me has not been the race itself but the flurry of activity afterwards. For if you look up at the balconies – which pre-race are lined with mafia-types in suits and dark glasses – you’ll see them suddenly empty, as they go in search of the jockeys that have failed to bring their money in. Apparently some years the jockeys have been pulled off their horses and even killed (so the legend goes) after losing the race, which is why you’d be hard pressed to find any of the losers in the vicinity once the final whistle is blown.
It’s been a few years since my last trip to Siena, so I’m more than a little excited about attending this year’s first Palio on Tuesday. Dark glasses at the ready…