On Saturday (13 Feb), we decided to take an outing to Siena, a beautiful Tuscan hill town not too far from Grosseto. To avoid taking two cars and having to worry about parking, we decided to take a bus. The ride through the Tuscan countryside was gorgeous.
A few years ago, Rijen and I happened to watch a documentary on the famous horse race called the Palio de Siena, which is the only thing I ever knew about the town.
The Palio de Siena fascinates me because I love the idea of a small town continuing a festival which has been going on since medieval times. One site which I linked to above as well as this one here suggests that horse racing has been a part of Siena ever since its Etruscan origins, given that a 6th century brick tile with a bas-relief depiction of bareback riders was discovered near the town. However, it seems that actual earliest documentation of a horse race in connection with the town festival dates back to 1238. This involved a fine incurred by the rider who:
“running in the Palio and having arrived last, he did not take the pig, the derisory prize assigned by the regulation to the most losing of all the losers”
I find that wording quite amusing by the way. In 1262, another document states that the jockeys couldn’t be prosecuted for homocide or injury, as a code of honesty assumes that they didn’t commit the act on purpose. Whether the jockeys maintained this code or not, that suggests to me that the races were probably fairly violent.
Il Palio is held twice a year in July and August and consists of 10 bareback riders who represent 10 of the seventeen Contrade, or city districts. The 10 spots in the race are allotted by chance in a drawing. The horses must circle the Piazza del Campo three times and the winner is the first horse to cross the finish line- with or without the jockey! Sara also told us that the dirt they bring in to cover the square is brought out of storage, so who knows how old it might be!
The whole event seemed incredible, and I remember thinking when I saw the documentary, that it would be amazing to go there someday and see the race. Sara and Dani assured us, however, that it would be absolutely insane to visit around that time as it is such a major event for the residents, let alone the magnitude of tourists who want to see the race as well. While it could be a once in a lifetime experience to see, I think it is obviously most meaningful for the actual residents of the contrade. In fact on one Italian Palio website has this to say about tourists:
Obviously this type of admirer is not particularly welcome since he or she does not have the capability of approximating even a credible image of the Palio and of the Contrade.
I actually tend to agree with this, especially after watching the documentary and reading more about it and how involved it all is with the rivalry between the contrade and all of the traditions and preparations that go on. I may be very interested in everything, however I don’t know what it is like to have such a strong connection between my personal identity and where I grew up. I don’t think I would truly understand what that feels like to be so invested in a loyalty towards one’s own “contrade,” –the only possible thing I could relate it to in my life is the different wards at church, but even that, I have been in countless wards, and there is no rivalry between them, and though I feel sentimentality towards the ward I grew up in, it does not define my own identity.
I think I am pretty representative of most Americans around my generation, who don’t expect to stay in the same place that they grew up in, but will probably live in many different cities throughout their life. I don’t tend to associate my identity with geography like someone might who lives in the same location as however many generations of their forefathers.
[The only place in the U.S. where I saw this first-hand was in Poquoson, VA, when the bus driver giving the new teachers their tour of the town told us proudly that her great-grandparents ON BOTH SIDES of her family were buried in the same cemetery we were passing. But I digress.]
Another telling statement about how the locals might view tourists is this piece of advice given on another page of the same website:
Do not sarcastically make comments on the tenseness of the Contrada members while the race is imminent and do not complain impatiently if the start of the race drags on for a long time before getting underway.
I actually came across someone else’s blog about their visit to Siena to see the race. Sure enough, he made it quite clear that he couldn’t believe that they had to wait in the huge throng over 2 hours just to see a race that lasted barely over a minute. So this quote seems to hint that some tourists may not understand that the actual race is only a part of the whole festival, and the final hours leading up to the race is part of the whole experience. The guy who made the comment about waiting so long actually had a pretty funny description of all the different kind of creative insults people were shouting at each other while they were waiting, so obviously that is part of the fun.
So that is my question for this post: How does one reconcile being a tourist and experiencing a “once in a lifetime” type event, with knowing that you may be intruding on something that you may only be experiencing superficially? And if you can only experience it that way as a tourist, is it even worth it? However, that is no reason just to sit at home and never go anywhere and see anything, obviously. So what is the best way to be a tourist? We were lucky in Italy because having Sara and Dani with us makes us feel a little more legitimate. Plus they always know the best places to eat.
When I realized that I would probably never experience the actual Palio in person, I figured that Sara and I could at least have our own version. Since it was very icy and it probably would have not been that great to race against each other, we linked arms and walked one rotation around the course while Dani timed us (or pretended to time us).
If we can trust Dani’s official time, we made it around the square in 3 minutes 17 seconds. Given that the horses make it around 3 times in 75 -90 seconds, we have a lot of training to do.
Next time- more Siena and cute pictures of Sami and Fiona’s first hot chocolate.