(Video caption: Drummers from the different contradas lead fans to Siena’s Piazza del Camp.)
Saturday, July 1, 2017: Clear the way, tourists. Stand aside, Siena residents not from il contrada Giraffa. Our drummers are headed for the Piazza del Campo. We are the champions.
Or so they were on July 2, 2017, when that parish/neighborhood in the Tuscan city of Siena won the Palio, reputed to be the oldest horse race in the world. The event attracts thousands of tourists leading up to the two summer dates when the races are held, July 2 and August 16. As for bragging rights in Siena, nothing else matters. The horses are blessed in the contrada churches. The place is packed. The odds might be stacked. The crowds go wild.
(Video caption: Enthusiasm rules the day at the Palio.)
We wanted to be in Siena for the main event on July 2, but the ticket prices ($1,000 for a bleacher seat) were out of our range. So we settled for July 1 and a preliminary race.
Nonetheless, it was a memorable day – and Cole and Kathy each added antics to make it so. And no day with a horse race can be a bad day in my book.
The drive from Montepulciano to Siena took way less time than finding a parking place. All the lots set aside for visitors were full. We finally lucked out when we stopped behind a car pulling out of a street spot. Then came a half hour of trying to figure out the parking pay machine with a Frenchman who had had similar luck and was similarly stumped. With four of us and two languages, we finally cracked the code.
On our way to the piazza, I bought two scarves like those race fans were wearing and immediately became a backer of the Istrice (porcupine) contrada. Then a shopkeeper told us that the neighborhoods represented by my scarves were not racing this year. This after wandering around the city trying to find the neighborhoods where “our” flags were flying. They weren’t. Only 10 of the 17 contradas race each year. Ours didn’t make it through the lottery that selects who will race.
But in our wandering, we visited the city’s most famous cathedral, did some shopping and jostled with the crowds in the narrow streets, which was nothing compared to what was to come.
I rushed us into the piazza about 90 minutes before the 7 p.m. race to be sure to get a good spot along the infield rail. The race is three times around the Piazza del Campo, which is converted into a dirt track between the free standing room in the infield and the bleachers up against the buildings surrounding the central plaza. The windows of the apartments around the piazza are probably the best places for seeing the race – and the most expensive.
In the next two hours, 60,000 or so people joined us inside the infield barriers. Fans are allowed on the track before the race. Restaurants set up tables for dining al fresco. Drinks are served.
We were in the shade, but it was hot. Anyone in the Palio infield should ”give up all idea of personal space,” travel guru Rick Steves writes in his guidebook. Little kids crawl under you and climb up the rail to sit on it right in front of your nose. People smoke, drink, shout, sing and carouse. But all seemed to be going well. Kathy, who has panic attacks in closed, crowded places, was keeping white-knuckle control on the situation. Cole was standing at the rail, anticipating the start of the race, and then he wasn’t. He just dropped out of sight into the crowd, which reacted to his fainting in very generous ways, clearing space around him, offering water, getting him into a sitting position and making him stay quiet until he regained equilibrium. I was trying to think how the call to his parents would go. Then he got up, more pale than the gray that would run later in the race.
“Everything was fine,” he said, “until I woke up and all I could see were people’s feet. Then I thought, ‘Oh no, I passed the fuck out again.’ ”
Thank you, Cole, for a concise rendering of events.
I had wondered how this dirt track, crowded with swaying drunks and laughing fans, could be cleared to make way for the horses. Then, on the other side of the circle from us, a phalanx of police started walking around the track, driving the rowdies before them. Where would those people go? There was no room in the bleachers for them. The infield would burst if one more person tried to squeeze in. Were they being swept into a drain at the end of the track?
In the short distance between the police and the cleanup crew that followed, Kathy’s panic attacked. She freaked, announced she had to get out of there, clambered over the rail and headed for the drain, breaking through the police line from behind and disappearing into the crowd.
A better man might have been angry, another man might have been hurt, but another man never would have let her go (thank you, Harry Chapin). I turned my attention to the race. It was post time.
The Palio races start with all the horses but one lined up behind a rope. The remaining horse is the starting horse (the movie “Palio” is great for explaining all this). None of the riders can start until the starter makes his break down the track and the rope is dropped. The trick is to have your horse facing in the right direction when the starter goes. That doesn’t always happen, and those not in positions trail the field. Negotiations with the starter before the race could be advantageous, I think. Just saying.We (Cole and I) were about halfway around the track from the start so we saw the horses and some of the riders blow by us three times for maybe 30 seconds total of close-up viewing. As they passed, every kind of camera equipment was hung out over the rail so close the jockeys could have snatched them away – and horse slobber on lenses was a very real risk.
I say some of the riders passed by. Others fell off. But that matters little since a riderless horse can win this race, which is what happened on this day. A tightly-packed muscular little black horse, sans rider, crossed the finish line first and some contrada somewhere went crazy. Actually, everyone in the city went crazy. Horses were paraded out of the ring by singing followers. More cheering and drumming as fans left the piazza.
We found Kathy through text messages. She had watched the race on a TV set up outside the piazza, which is where all the track occupiers had ended up, swept out an exit to try to find a place to watch the Palio, perhaps the best horse race in the world.