Trip Start Jun 19, 2008
Trip End Oct 11, 2008

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Saturday, August 16, 2008

How to explain palio, the famous Sienese bareback horse race...Here is what we gathered from the whole event.
We arrived in the usually-quiet city of Siena and climbed through neighborhoods (contradas), pasted with the colors and symbol of each and filled with excited tourists and residents. See, twice a year, the contradas of Siena fight it out for bragging rights through this intense horse race. It has been going on since the Middle Ages, and I guess it's better than gangs or duels... We sat down in the middle of the palio piazza at 2pm, what we thought was 3 hours before the race began. It was hot. It was dirty. It was crowded. It was boring. So, at 5pm, we hear people excitedly exclaiming that there are only 2 hours left until the race. Ugh. But, at 5pm, the parades did begin. 10 contradas compete each year in the race, and before the race, each neighborhood gets to put on a show of sorts within a very long parade. The festivities started with an  Italian cavalry charge, riders screaming with sabers drawn, that looked like it came out of the textbooks...I wouldn't want to be one of the guys on the other side of that. Then came the processions of the contradas, which usually included funny Renaissance getups, big swords and other weapons, banners, flag-throwers, pageboy wigs, trumpets and drums and of course the horse that would be racing (usually terrified and freaking out from all of the people and noise...a few times we thought they would escape their handlers and jump onto us!). After two hours of these processions, my feet were cramped from standing on tiptoe, and Ryan barely had space to turn in a circle, but it was time for the race to begin! Or so we thought. Now, I have given you an explanation of Palio as I understand it, but apparently I don't understand very much. There is a series of very complicated, incomprehensible (to us at least) rules about how to start the race. Apparently these were broken again and again so the race had to be restarted again and again for almost an hour. The tourists were tired and baffled, but the Italians were pissed.

Eventually, it began. A gunshot, and the horses and their jockeys rocketed around the piazza once, twice, then three times. In the process, two jockeys slipped from their horses and looked like they were trampled, our arbitrarily-chosen "team" came close, but no cigar. The caterpillars (we don't know the real contrada names, only their mascots) won, and all caterpillars and caterpillar fans erupted into song, flag-waving, and gloating. We followed the parade of happy fans, assuming they would be going to celebrate in their neighborhood, but they arrived at the cathedral instead.Very strange. Watch the video of the race and the pictures in the church. I don't even know how to explain it. We were confused too. Nevertheless, it was a lot of fun, and we are glad that we went. 
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