Palio di Siena

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As we have been nearing the launch of our brand new website, the excitement is building. Rich and Jennifer were trying to get me to write a blog about the restaurant and our adventures. I was very reluctant, but after I had told them the story of the flags which you see on the top and bottom of this article, they insisted I tell the story. The Contrade flags that adorn the restaurant are the originals from the Palio de Siena.

ITALY-HORSE RACING-PALIOThe Palio di Siena (known locally simply as Il Palio) is a horse race held twice each year on July 2 and August 16 in Siena, Italy, in which ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, represent ten of the seventeen Contrade, or city wards. The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, who has a church in Siena. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary.corteo1-resized

A magnificent pageant, the Corteo Storico, precedes the race, which attracts visitors and spectators from around the world.

palio-of-siena-001-resizedThe race itself, in which the jockeys ride bareback, circles the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. It is not uncommon for a few of the jockeys to be thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza, and indeed it is not unusual to see unmounted horses finishing the race without their jockeys. The Palio in fact is won by the horse who represents his contrada, and not by the jockeys. A horse who wins without a jockey is described as winning scosso.

Contrades-and-SienaThe seventeen Contrade are: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Little Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Crested porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (Female Wolf), Nicchio (Seashell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Black Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower) and Valdimontone (literally, “Valley of the Ram” – often shortened to Montone).

In each race, only ten of the seventeen contrade participate: the seven which did not participate in the previous year’s Palio, and three others chosen by drawing lots.

Being as this is the theme of our restaurant, Renee and I decided that for our honeymoon we would go to Italy and experience The Palio de Siena first hand. We started our trip in Venice. It was like being in an adult Disneyland. We had all this funny money (Euros) and foreign languages, new customs, and a spectacular view of The Rialto Bridge. This is where we had our first Spritz, a cocktail made of Campari, prosecco, an orange slice and an olive.

On our way to Siena we visited Florence for a few days. This was my favorite city on our trip. It had just the right amount of everything, culture, quaintness, action, and very walkable. On one of our adventures to Uffizi Gallery we were walking in the direction of our hotel and noticed music playing on the Potivecchio Bridge. We had the best time listening to Claudio Spadi. He was playing modern hits from the U.S. and original songs in Italian. This is when I went down to the local wine shop and talked them into letting me borrow two wine glasses to go watch the concert. Check out this video of “Enjoy The Silence. by Depeche Mode”. We also saw Zucchero in concert. This was phenomenal, we were 9th row in an arena that sold out 10,000 people. The band had nearly 20 performing members, with backdrop movie screens and the deal. One of the days we went to Ruffino Winery for a tour and tasting. We were greeted and informed we were waiting for a few more guests to arrive. The first couple were in the movie industry, from L.A. Then a family of five showed up. As we introduced each other, I was so surprised to meet the owner of Zebra Club in downtown Sacramento. I have been there a few time and find it so funny to meet local people half way around the world. They had a fantastic tip for us as well about what became one of our favorite restaurants in Italy. La Giostra in Florence,

Now, on to Siena. First of all, be very careful when driving to Siena, gps wants to take you through the middle of the city. We did it and it’s like driving through Disney Land in summer, not very fun. I was also informed that they have cameras all over and that I would have multiple traffic violations. I spent a lot of time searching for a restaurant I saw on Siena Taverns website. I found the sign they put on the website, but the restaurant inside was very different than the video. I was bummed, I even went back twice, the owner must have thought I was crazy. But, I did find what is supposed the best restaurant in Siena. It was our choice as well,

La Taverna di San Giuseppe Siena,

We had dinner with the contrada where our hotel was situated, the Pantera contrada, or Black Panther. This was filled with song and joy and tears as well. It’s hard to imagine the intensity of the local contradas around the race time. It is so religious that it would be offensive to bet on the races. The race held on July 2nd is in honor of Madonna of Provenzano. We were told that the Madonna was the person responsible for encouraging the Pope to come back to Italy from France. The race held on August 18th is in honor of the Assumption of Mary. We have been told that Siena was under attack by Florence and that the town gathered together and prayed to Mary for help. The following day the Florence army started to retreat.

The parade that takes place before the race is incredible. All 17 contradas parade around the square with such pagentry and history. It feels as if the time is of the Renaissance. Lasting about 2 and a half hours. Then the ten chosen contradas attempt to line up for the start. For our race it took eight trys until the race was underway. As a spectator you must be ready. The whole race is over in close to 90 second, and when they go by the area in front of you it is almost a blur. During the second lap the jockey from our contrada was thrown off his horse. The horse may still win even without a jockey, our came in second place. The winning contrada was the Oca, or goose.

The flags are not for sale in Siena to the public. They do sell the scarves as souvenirs and comradery. When we were building the restaurant my mom was trying to make flags similar in fashion. One of our friends, Anna said that they had those flags back home in Bressia and she would ask her husband Giuseppe if he could get the flags from his friends. After a lot of dinners and negotiations Giuseppe was able to secure the flags and send them to us. Still to this day we have people show up, show us their contrada card and tell us that was their flag. Please admire the flags and think about the history of the race. The only other real Palio de Siena flags Iv’e seen are in Hearst Castle, from the 60s.