Over the course of the two-week intensive Italian course before classes started my friend Yoonjee and I decided to go to Siena on Ferrogosto. Ferrogosto is the assumption of the virgin and is a national holiday in Italy and hence we had a three day weekend. However not knowing this and not having planned much we decided to simply go to the most convenient one-day trip we could think of. We asked Professor Blanchard what sights he thought we should see in Siena as the class would be going there on a trip later in the semester and we didn’t want a repeat of sights and although truthfully the city is small and one could cover it in a day as he said, he also mentioned that the Palio was going on in Siena when we would be there. The Palio is an annual horse race held in Siena twice a year in July and August, around the Piazza del Campo between contenders from the various city wards around Siena.
We looked it up and found out that it was indeed happening but practices only and that the real deal was on the 16th but that tickets for that were somewhere in the region of hundreds of euros so we thought we would try to see some of the practices instead. We got to the city and found to our surprise groups of people wandering the streets in brights colors, chanting and singing for their respective contrada. We eventually found out that the contenders had been decided in a lottery that morning and that the first race would take place at 7pm. We climbed the tower in the meantime to see amazing views of the medieval city below, saw the Duomo from the outside but then rushed to the piazza, because to get good seats we had to wait for two hours, standing at the edge of the piazza, so that no one would take our place while it filled up with huge crowds. Reserved balconies in front of us filled with children from the surrounding towns and we found out that this was actually the best day to see the practice run. In the piazza, a man who was there with his children, told us that on the first day the contenders try harder because the people from their towns were watching them instead of those who had bought tickets and were from elsewhere. Indeed, children were loudly singing their regional songs in Italian, then pointing at each other, which made the other group rise up and sing their respective song for their contrada. The children filling the seats in front of us were the best part of the Palio, as well as watching the various city officials and police members making their ceremonial walk around the piazza before the race began. Photographers and journalists crowded the front line to take pictures of the children shouting and screaming even louder as the contrada made their way to the front line, conducting their first slow round of the piazza to loud cheers from the crowd.
Before the race began we were worried we wouldn’t make our train on time. It was at 8 pm, the Palio began at 7:15 pm and the station was a little ways from the city, it took a good half hour to walk there. And through the crowds leading the horses and their contrada after the race, we imagined it would never happen, and we were weighing the options of sleeping in the station or booking a hotel for the night.
To loud chants the race started and it was all over within five minutes. At 7:25 pm we realized we might have a chance to make the next train to Rome. We ran out of the piazza ‘scusi-ing’ crowds out of the way through to a piazza full of city garbage collectors who told us we might be able to find a taxi at piazza Nazionale which was still ten minutes away. Reaching the piazza we mercifully found a taxi and seeing our faces he rushed us to the station and we made it just in time.
It was a truly memorable experience, one that I think will stay with me for a lifetime.