We stayed not far outside of the city, in a little town called Badesse. It was the quintessential Italian countryside experience. Here, we took a day to relax at our beautiful bed and breakfast managed by an old Italian couple and their son. The time we didn’t spend relaxing, we were doing quite the opposite at the Palio, Siena’s famously brutal horse race.
arriving at santa chiara b+b
Julian: Up until now, almost every meal on the trip–breakfast, lunch, and dinner–has been planned out and researched. This has actually taken up a lot of time, been a little stressful, and, when these meals haven’t lived up to our expectations, it’s made me feel like we’ve wasted precious time. But our primary reason for going to Siena was to experience the Palio, so we kind of just played the meals by ear. That was pretty nice, actually. I needed it.
Jesse: Hah, it actually could have been quite romantic under different circumstances. Just vineyards and grass fields stretching in every direction, goats “bah”ing in the distance, a dirt path to our secluded stone house, and all sorts of edible plants growing around the property. Steps led up the side of the house to our quaint apartment that included 2 large bedrooms, a bathroom, and a large kitchen/ dining area that included a fire place large enough to roast a full boar in. Seriously! I asked the guy who lived in the house why the fire place was so big and he said there used to be benches IN it so you could sit around the fire. If you’re going to Italy and seeking a romantic, peaceful holiday–that’s also astoundingly inexpensive–this is the place to go.
Julian: They also cooked us breakfast and shuttled us around. Pretty sweet deal. Anyway, onto the Palio. We got to Siena the morning of the Palio to pick up our tickets for the event which would take place “around 7pm.” Right away I could feel a buzz in the air. We did some serious wandering, then finally stopped in at the first restaurant that wasn’t completely packed. That took some searching, seeing as Siena is a small city that, all of a sudden, needed to accommodate 30,000 extra people. But eventually we ended up in this old-looking restaurant that looked alright. Turned out to be an Italian medieval-themed place. Think one of those cheesy jousting knights of the roundtable places but a little bit more authentic. A little. The food was very peasant-like, so I guess they were doing what they intended. I wouldn’t call it good, but it filled us up for the big day ahead.
Jesse: Peasant-like actually describes it exactly–because we ordered the traditional peasant tasting menu. In fact, we took it a step farther than peasant and ordered the medieval tasting menu as well. I think you can imagine what we ate–or at least, it doesn’t warrant explanation. I wouldn’t say it was a bad meal though. We got to our seats for the Palio at 4:30. Two and half hours before the race, and you could feel the energy and anticipation in the air. Imagine a whole city, with century-old rivalries between competing neighborhoods, preparing for weeks, months even; complete with bribery, gambling, and sabotage–all for a 90 second race. A brutal, bareback, horse race, where the whips aren’t just for hitting your own horse, and the winning horse doesn’t even need a rider.
Julian: I was really antsy for the race to start. I picked the porcupine neighborhood (each neighborhood has its own animal associated with it), mostly because we saw a sad piece of porcupine roadkill the day before. Apparently, though, the porcupines have been suspended from racing for two years, due to some sketchy behavior. So I had literally nothing riding on the race. But emotionally, I felt as if I was about to compete in one of the biggest sporting events of my life. After two and a half hours of waiting, watching exactly 34 actually pretty legit flag throwers do their thing, the gun finally went off.
right outside our b+b
Jesse: Ooo, but first, one of the cooler things I’ve seen, or heard, a crowd do before: the “shhhshing” of 30,000 people. I kid you not. A crowd of 30,000 people was shhhshhed into quiet submission. That’s a powerful experience. It was almost eerie, what a cross-culturally powerful little thing the shush is. Anyhow, the race! The yelling, the shrieking, the stomping, the jumping, and the crying. 90 seconds of pure adrenaline. As they broke away from the starting gate the goose led the way (my neighborhood), by the second lap–one rider was down with his horse still charging ahead, by the last, the Fish at the front, another rider down trampelled by the two riders behind him, and the fish finishing in first place.
view from Siena
Julian: After screaming bloody murder for a minute straight, the Sienese lady next to us was in tears, seemingly exhausted. Down below the Fish rallied around their jockey, all of them hugging and jumping around. I was in the Bay Area last fall when the Giants won the World Series, but that doesn’t even come close to the joy I saw in these people. It really was something really special. Our description really doesn’t do it justice. Thanks so much to Louis for helping us getting it all set up. Unforgettable.
calm before the storm
parading the Onda horse around Siena the day after the Palio