Siena Palio without the Palio guest post by Liz Brewster

My previous Siena visits have always been too brief; at best a few hours to wander the well-kept medieval streets and soak in the beauty of one of my all-time favorite piazzas in Italy, the shell-shaped “Campo”. A stop at the gothic Duomo is always a must on my list; first to peruse the intricate inlaid stone floors inside, then back outside to the southeastern corner of the piazza  to ponder the unfinished  gargantuan walls that were  left over from an aborted 1300’s remodelling scheme to enlarge the church and still stand today as monumental testimony to medieval sienese wealth and ambition.  By then it would be time to grab a quick meal before reluctantly moving on.  I knew I was shortchanging the place every time I left.

The opportunity to give Siena the justice it deserved came to mind when I started planning a weekend trip from Rome for visiting family. When I discovered that a Sienese collegue leads a family-oriented Siena walk with the famous Palio horse race as the theme, I knew I hit bingo for keeping all three generations of my group happy;  my 7 and 9 year old boys love animals; my stepfather, a horse trainer and riding instructor has had a poster of the Palio hanging in his study for 10+ years but had never set foot in Siena;  my mother, my husband and I could get to absorb a little Sienese culture from an in-the-know local. Only one question hung in my mind: Could a race that we weren’t going to see become the “glasses” that we could view the city with?

We met Stella, our smiling guide on the steps of the enormous church of San Domenico.  She fit in right away with my family, not always an easy task as we are a mix of mono and bilinguals and tend to babble between ourselves in both English and Italian.  She gave the boys postcards showing the contrada (neighborhood) flags and symbols which would serve as their “decoder” throughout our adventure.

We started off inside the church; the boys got to work identifying the 17 contrada flags that hung from the perimeter walls while Stella started to unfold  a bit of Sienese history and contrada lore. On our way out, we passed a grassy area next to the church where the horse that  runs for the Dragon contrada (the neighborhood that we were in) is blessed in a special mass before the big race.

It turned out that this outside space was unique, because usually each contrada brings its racehorse INSIDE its local church for a similar pre-race blessing ceremony.

As we wound through the hilly medieval streets, Stella pointed out contrada boundry markers set into building corner walls. We began to notice other small details such as exterior lamps and small window decorations proudly painted in the neighborhood contrada colors.  We followed Stella  into a semi-hidden courtyard to peek inside a contrada meetinghouse lodged in the ground floor of an old residential building. Through a sleek, contemporary-styled wood and glass entrance door, we could see the hall which displayed past winnings of precious hand painted silk palio banners behind framed glass cases hung on the walls. In another angle of the courtyard was a modern sculpture/fountain, used as a font to “baptize” new members, children, into the contrada. Stella also explained that the courtyard is the place where the contrada’s palio horse is brought to for protection before the race starts.  This courtyard, along with the neighborhood church, represented the “heart” of this contrada.  Slowly, I came to “see” the division of the city in contradas, imagining another sixteen of these small community centers spread out through the urban fabric, a  physical manifestation of  this deep-rooted sense of belonging to one’s neighborhood clan.  It was something much bigger than a 90 second race held twice a year. By the time we walked through the Piazza del Campo talking about race day preparations, how the perimeter “track” was prepared by dumping and packing down dirt in layers over the sloping stone paving, I had got it.  We were starting to look at this city in a new way, and the Palio was indeed an interesting pair of glasses to use.

The highlight was finishing with a visit to Sienese fantino Luigi Bruschelli’s (aka Trecciolino) house and ranch. We piled into cars and drove out of the city into the gorgeous rolling Tuscan hills dressed in their autumn colors. Stella had arranged for us to be able to go see one of the winning horses of the Palio. I was expecting to see a horse or two at pasture in the countryside and hadn’t imagined that we would get such a precious inside view of the workings of this training ranch and glimpse into the world of a fantino who has won so many Palios (12 to date).  We parked outside of a group of freshly-restored old stone buildings and courtyard, with farm structures and pastures in the backround.

Gigi wasn’t there but his wife Rita (who has a key role in managing the ranch) was very knowlegeble and welcoming as was his son Enrico, who is training to become a fantino. Rita invited us into their house and showed us trophies, photos, and a virtual museum of personal Palio memorabilia and explained some of the traditions and inner workings between the fantini and the contrade.

They took us through the tidy, new-looking stables, greeting and introducing the horses as they  poked their heads out in curiosity upon our approach. They have 30+ horses on the premises and a typical workday starts early, at about 5 am. We stopped in the tack room to look at the walls covered with bits, bridles, training equipment and a few saddles. While my stepfather got into discussing the technical details of horsetraining, I saw a bunch of trophies, now dusty, crammed on top of a storage cabinet and asked about them. Luigi had a backround of traditional equestrian competitions before he devoted himself to palio-style racing (ie riding bareback at breakneck speed, 3 times around a densely packed-in humanity-filled piazza with two 90° turns with few, if any, rules to follow…).

As we headed towards the pastures meeting thoroughbreds and half-breeds along the way,  I noticed a perfectly-raked dirt “track” or corridor, fenced on both sides, which enclosed several divided pastures within the inner circle.  Rita explained that this was indeed the training track, and that it roughly mimicked the perimeter of  Piazza del Campo!  I was awed.  Enrico even took one of their horses for a bareback spin on “the track” to demonstrate how they ride/train for the Palio. Needless to say, he made it look absolutely effortless to ride a full-on galloping horse!

We’ll definately be watching for the 2011 Palio next July and August; rooting for Stella’s Torre contrada and of course, Trecciolino.