This is my third time in Siena and my second time at the Palio, the historic horse race around the perilous shell-shaped main square. I like it so much I even named my daughter Sienna.
Siena is divided into 17 contrada or districts, each represented by an animal or mascot. These are the contestants for the twice yearly race. There are a series of practice runs throughout the week, and in the final race 10 districts are chosen to compete.
William Cheyne, a shetlander/Italian I met while waiting for the race to start, explained the rivalry. ‘It’s like football but much much more, like 100 times more strongly felt. The contrada have been enemies for over 500 years.’
Football-style chants are sung operatically, call and response, from different sections of the crowd. The tune is similar but the words change for each contrada. The Porcupines sing at the Geese: ‘You are crap and nobody likes you.’ The Oca Goose is the contrada that has won the most times. Turns out that nobody does like them, ‘the goose has no friends’, but they have a mortal enemy – the Torre or Tower.
This year, I am part of the oca, wearing the scarf depicting the heraldry, a white goose with a blue ribbon around the neck, on a background of green, red and white. They were disqualified in 2019 for insulting and harassing the Torre. This is the first Palio since the pandemic, so this means they will not be running this year.
I asked William, a fellow oca, if he was upset. ‘The most important is that the Torre don’t win. They are favourites this year, and this would be a disaster,’ he says. William’s family come from Rome but he visited a Sienese schoolfriend every year throughout his childhood and now has been baptised into the contrada, a process that takes place in May each year.
The jockeys ride bareback (no saddle), but it’s the horse that wins. A horse without a rider can win. The contrada save all year to hire the best horse and jockey. Jockeys have to be escorted from the race as enemy districts can be so hostile. At times jockeys have ended up in hospital. Cheating is not unknown. Horses can be knobbled too.
In fact, we saw a rider unmounted during a practice prova race. This caused utter fury, chants became more aggressive and hundreds of pointing fingers jabbed the air. The Porcupines were allowed to leave the arena to prevent fights breaking out. I took photos and ushers sternly commanded: ‘don’t do that’. They didn’t want this picturesque medieval tradition revealed as the most passionately hostile battle between neighbours.
I barely saw the race as we were in the cheap seats, in the middle. I saw it via other people’s iPhones. To have a great view, you can rent a window above the square. I’m told the going rate is 600 euros for the duration of the race – three minutes!
I managed to procure rare tickets (€35 per person), for the evening dinner, usually closed to tourists, in the Oca contrada, around via Santa Catarina. On this occasion, 800 diners are seated in rows of tables in the street. During years when the Oca compete, this total doubles to 1,600, spreading into passageways, alleys, courtyards, piazzas and roads. It’s the biggest supperclub you can imagine. Around 20 cooks, both professional and amateur, cook for 800.
After the aperitivo, where we down tiny blood-orange bottles of Campari with Prosecco mixers, we sit down. Myself and my mum are vegetariano. The antipasti is half a burrata, a marinated artichoke heart, a whole sun-dried tomato, a slice of melon and a draping of ham. The ham is promptly removed from our plates. Primi consists of ricotta-stuffed ravioli with a sauce of tomatoes and pine nuts. Segundi is a kind of kebab with a selection of roasted meat on top of a pile of braised spinach. Vegetariano, I repeat. Our plates return with a mountainous dome of braised spinach with the kebab removed. This makes us giggle.
The very decent Chianti is flowing; bottle after bottle is placed on the table. I hear my dad pledging undying loyalty to Siena, Oca and the random guests sitting next to us. Dessert consists of a homemade chocolate-covered ice cream wedged into tin foil. The local teenagers serve us.
At 1am, we begin the steep trek home through the undulating burnt ochre streets. I have to physically pull my 80-plus parents up the streets, exhorting them onwards like a sports coach. Drink was partook. They zig-zag wearily and happily. The next morning my mum declares: ‘Getting undressed for bed is overrated.’
This was a bucket list item ticked off, the experience of a lifetime.
We stayed at the Torre alle Tolfe farmhouse self-catering apartments just outside Siena.