Wednesday 18 October 2017

Let the games begin... Siena's bareback horse race

Twice a year, the stunning Tuscan town of Siena is taken over by a medieval bareback horse race that pits communities against each other in a ritual that is not just important, but vital

Horses and riders line up behind the starting rope
Horses and riders line up behind the starting rope
Pageants and processions are a big part of the festivities

Patricia Louise Murphy

If the saying "no carbs before Marbs" is the mantra for the body beautiful heading for the Costa del Sol this summer, then "buon appetito" has to be the advice for Tuscan culture vultures intent on getting a piece of the action.

Palio, not to be confused with the food fad Paleo, is a medieval bareback horse race, which takes place in Siena twice a year in July and August. Its principals are not unlike the fiction series The Hunger Games in that 10 local districts get to fight by whatever means possible for the glory of Il Palio, a painted banner.

This most prestigious prize is awarded to the contrada, or district, whose horse is first to cross the line. Be that with or without a fantino, or jockey. But instead of a number, each district carries a name: Giraffa, Bruco, Leocorno, Tartuca, Oca, Onda. Historic names adapted by the district for goods or services they supplied to the military throughout their struggle to maintain Siena's independence against Florence.

There are a total of 17 districts in Siena but only 10 get to compete. Seven slots are filled by the districts who were not included in the last event, with the final three being awarded by lotto. During i giorni di Palio, usually four days, the shell-shaped Piazzo del Campo at the heart of the walled city is crammed with contrade. Thousands of these Sienese patriots come together in the narrow streets of their districts before pouring into the Campo to catch the four days of action.

Not wanting to miss any of the build-up, we fly into Pisa with a few days to spare and make our way down to Siena, nestled in the abundance of the Tuscan countryside. It's summertime and the landscape is bursting. Crops are planted like masterpieces in perfect geometric patterns; wheat fields and the cypress pine trees roll on for miles.

Inside the walls of the ancient city, the pulse of the palio has already started to quicken in the lead-up to the big event. Thirty potential horses are reduced to 10, and then, by random selection at a special ceremony in the Campo, the 10 horses are assigned to a district. From then on, the gloves are off. Each horse is whisked off to a stable within the city walls and kept under 24-hour guard by its contrada.

We are reminded over dinner with Oliviero, a Bruco contrada, that Palio is not important to the Sienese - it is vital. It is the very essence of life. "You cannot join a contrada, you must be born into it. To be a true contrada you are born there, baptised there and are buried there. It runs in your veins," he tells us.

Next come trials and more trials, pageants, processions and more festivities. It's almost impossible to keep track of them, but there is always something happening both formal and informal. Some heavy rain means a couple of the trials are cancelled, but the spirit continues. It feels like we are slap-bang in the middle of some modern opera or flash mob, as players enter and exit at various strategic points from the main stage.

The chants of the approaching chorus can be heard outside the arena as they make their way forward in battle. Tenors, strong and menacing, lead the charge in their team colours, followed by the women and children. Each district chants the same aria, but changes the words to taunt their rival while bragging about themselves.

You're never quite sure where the next drama is going to unfold, and it's not uncommon for a little bit of squabbling to take place on the borderlines of neighbouring districts. Thankfully, this is all part of the process and rarely leads to any bad behaviour. In fact, during our whole visit, we didn't witness one incident of aggressive behaviour or drunkenness, even though the Chianti seemed to be constantly flowing. And, of course, there is plenty of hugging and kissing as the top brass and state dignitaries get down with the locals.

It's also during these lead-up days that deals are struck among the key players and alliances are formed. Although there is no formal betting going on, they make no secret of the fact that there is a bit of skulduggery going on behind the scenes. He who holds the purse strings, it seems, has a better chance of arm wrestling with Lady Luck. But just like life and the best-laid plans, we never know how it's going to roll. There are too many variables.

Race day arrives, and I opt to stay just outside the Campo and follow it on TV with the locals. It's comfortable, it's free and doesn't involve jostling with the crowds. Being penned into the centre of the arena for three hours in the scorching heat without a toilet is to be expected if you want to get a front-row spot.

Donal, on the other hand, has paid handsomely for his position by the ringside and is poised to capture all 90 seconds of this epic battle. Over 15,000 people have been packed into the square for hours, for just one-and-a-half minutes of action. They wait with bated breath for 7.45pm, the official start of the race. But, as luck would have it, that old adage "Never work with animals or children" rings true. Despite numerous attempts, Tartuca's horse, with one of the more experienced and influential jockeys on board, refuses to line up. It's something the officials haven't dealt with before and simply don't know how to make a ruling on it, or perhaps they are reluctant to do so. Time drags on, light starts to fade and it's nearly an hour before the decision is made to withdraw the horse. "You would easily know I'm not from here," I overhear an Italian boy say to his aunt "I don't have the patience for this."

Nine horses are systematically lined up as we wait for the 'run-in', the 10th horse and jockey who picks his moment to charge from the back. This is the official start. The ropes are dropped as the run-in makes his move, and they are suddenly off to a clean start. There's a clashing of whips with full contact as riders intimidate their opponents and deliberately try to squeeze them into the barriers. The cheering of the crowds reaches fever pitch, but it is the red-and-white of Giraffa whose motto is "The higher the head, the greater the glory" who just pulls ahead of the chasing pack to finish in first place. .

The place erupts. People start jumping the barriers and run on to the track, including Donal who gets swept along with the tide of Sienese running wildly towards the winner and towards their contrada. There is little or no crowd control, despite a strong presence by the carabinieri, yet there is never a feeling of danger as the jockey is paraded through the streets on the shoulders of his contrada into the winning church to receive benediction. Closely followed by the real winner, the horse.

Once again, it's time to for us to loosen the reins and stretch our necks out as we make our way leisurely back to Pisa. This glorious little gem of a town is gearing up for it's summer music festival and I'm almost sorry we can't stay and catch some of the headliners playing to an intimate audience in the town square in just a few weeks. But that's a whole other side to Tuscany.

Photography by Donal Maloney

Words by Patricia Louise Murphy

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