God sometimes gives us unexpected gifts. Our gift has been a grandson who enlivens our lives and makes retirement very different than the one we anticipated. He is a special joy. And that's "Casey." In 2006 we fulfilled our dream of living in Italy for a year. It was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. This blog begins in 2005 as we prepared for that experience. Since then we have explored many places together. That's the "Travel." And finally, I am a person of opinions--spiritually, politically, on just about anything and that's the "Other Stuff." Welcome to my blog.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

The Palio

There are so many things I am wanting to share about daily life, Casey, wonderful people, mistakes, grocery stores, washing machines, detergent and softener and how dumb I can be and more. But--the pressing entry right now is Siena, the Palio and the last three days.

(You can click on pictures to enlarge.)

Siena--an amber city of Tuscany--is rich in history. For centuries, along with Firenze, much of the surrounding area was under its dominion. Little hilltop towns were fought over by the two major cities, always ruled by one or the other. Battles, intrigue and betrayal defined the relationship between the two powers with Firenze the ultimate victor.

Siena now retains much of its medieval and renaissance heritages--not just in colorful reenactments, carefully maintained ambience or tourist kitch. But, unlike many European cities of historical importance, Siena passionately continues and lives its traditions--they are as alive today as they were centuries ago. Rivalries born in years past, with the memory of "why" lost in the intervening centuries, continue to be nurtured and acted upon--there is no need for reenactment. These rivalries remain fresh and real.

And it is is in the Palio where this living history becomes most apparent and inescapable. The Palio "rules" the citizens of Siena in a way that outsiders can not comprehend. My friends have explained it to us and over the last three days we have witnessed it--but, the best we can do is recognize the intensity, the passion, the absorption of the soul that surrounds this event--we can not feel or comprehend the why or how. As one friend expresses it: "Next to giving birth, nothing is more emotional than winning the palio."

So--what is the Palio? Most people will say that it is a horse race around the Campo in Siena--perhaps the world's most famous horse race. And this answer would be wrong. The Palio is the prize--the banner that is won by the winning contrada. The banner that each contrada "lives" to win and once won is its' forever. A new banner is created for each palio. Cristina, a friend of mine, has written an excellent explanation of the palio--its history, its significance, its sway over the people. If you want to know more--what a contrada is? how the race is formed? what the dynamics are? and more, read The Palio.

Because we have friends in Siena, we were privileged to experience the palio more fully than many or maybe even most outsiders. Monday night Cristina invited us to her "casa" for dinner and so we immediately had a sense of belonging. Cristina has two daughters about the same age as Casey and so it was special for him too--not just adults sitting around talking!

Cristina is a member of the Selva contrada (more about that later) and so the palio is very important to her. But--to prove that life is indeed full of surprises--I have known for a long time that her family owned restaurants in San Francisco but not until Monday did I discover that one was the Blue Fox--which for many years reigned as one of the most prestigious, famous dining establishments in The City. One of my most treasured memories is sending my parents there as a surprise celebration gift. Life is full of serendipity!

Back to the palio--
The expression wall-to-wall people finds its full meaning at Palio time--tourists and Sienese all crowd the streets and alleys. The air is festive and alive. People begin filling the campo early in the morning in order to see a race that may begin at 7 PM and which will last 90 seconds or so. (We were not one of these people!)

Other friends, Alessandro and Colleen, own an ancient Sienese house right along the contradas' parade route from the duomo to the campo. They invited us to join them in leaning out their windows, watching the parade go by--just as people have done from those very same windows for years and years and years. The feeling was rather unique and magical.

Cristina's Contrada Selva (the Rhino)

The Masses Following the Parade

The race was scheduled to begin at 7 PM, but there is quite a "dance" preceding the actual race. This contest is definitely not a model of integrity!! There is a great amount of deal making among the jockeys--all done with the blessing and expectations of the contradas. It has happened this way for hundreds of years and, evidently, the Palio race would not be the Palio race without it.

We watched the race on television from the comfort of Colleen's and Alessadro's home. Most of the Sienese see it this way. However, Casey actually went to the campo with our hosts' teen age kids. They know how to go down right before the race and actually find a position to see it. Casey's comment was that he spent "a lot of the time with a lady's butt pressing my face." (His words--not mine.) Guess that is the reality of being 8 years old. Fortunately one of their group held him when the race started.

Casey had bought a Selva banner and scarf earlier in the day as he felt an affinity with that contrada since that was the one his new friends were in. So when they won, he was excited to be wearing the winning paraphenalia.

Now if you read the article on the Palio in the link above, you know how Cristina feels about the Palio and then try to imagine her incredible excitement when Selva, her contrada won. At once the parade around Siena began with the members of the contrada chanting, singing, crying, sobbing, laughing--all at once. The jockey was carried on shoulders, banners were waved with total abandon.

Two minutes after the race, Cristina called to ask if we were going to the duomo and so we went. All the contrada members push, shove, cram inside the Siena cathdral--hundreds and hundreds of people. Our friend Colleen took us in--had she not we would just have stayed outside with the other tourists. We ended up almost to the front of the cathedral, in the first row of the path the processional would take. Old men were truly crying and sobbing as they hugged and clung to each other. Bodies were so crammed together that there was no space between us. It was beyond incredible.

Soon the big contrada banners began coming down the aisle, followed by the jockey being carried on shoulders.

The Jockey Being Carried into the Duomo

Finally, the moment of moments--the Palio arrived. The noise was deafening. A chanting count began uno, due, tre.....quattordici (14)--the number of times the Selva (Rhino) contrada has won since WWII. Tears flowed from every eye and we felt that we were intruders in a private scene.

The Palio in the Duomo

When the blessing was over, there was a mass exodus from the church. All I could think of was "this must be what the stampedes at rock concerts and calcio (soccer) games are like." It was total relief to get outside and be able to breath.

From there we went back to Colleen's where Alessandro had a summer dinner waiting for us in the garden. As we ate and enjoyed the atmosphere, fireworks began shaking the ground and air, the night lit up with yellow and green and blue and red. The party had begun!

Finally, Cristina, Colleen and Alessandro--if you are reading this--Grazie mille per una volta


gentle spirit said...

What a wonderful description of an amazing event! We went for two years, but only for the "after" events. I was always too afraid of the mass of humanity:)You made me feel like I had been there. So glad that Casey could be a part of this historic event.

Chiocciola said...

Awesome! I felt I was right there with you and your family. Being inside the Duomo must have been an incredible experience!