Our trip to Tuscany Part II
August 21, 2008
TUSCANY When you spend time in a timeless place you tend to lose track of, well, time. Life takes on a rhythm and pace that is based more on the mood, the light and whim of any given moment than it does on any schedule. So it is in Tuscany.If you missed part one of this story, which appeared in last weeks Aspen Times Weekly, we covered the opening days of a trip that my wife and I took to the Tuscan city of Siena, where we witnessed a horse race called the Palio. For the uninitiated, the Palio is a race in which ten horses, each representing one of the citys contradas, or districts, are ridden bareback at break-neck speed for three laps around the Piazza del Campo, Sienas main square. Sounds simple, but the history (they have been doing this since the 1500s), intrigue and danger of the Palio make it one of the worlds great sporting spectacles.In the first days of our journey, we toured Tuscany, checked into an incomparable villa on a small, working olive farm and acclimated to the rhythms of Tuscan time. But now, as the Palio approached, we were anxious to discover the race we had come so far to see.
Before leaving home we had arranged with an American named Gina Stipo, who teaches Italian cooking (see sidebar, page 52) and doubles as a Palio enthusiast, to help us get the most out of our experience. Gina did not disappoint, getting us prime tickets in a balcony above the piazza for the Prova Generale, a test race that takes place the night before the Palio itself. She also wrangled tickets for one of the extravagant dinners hosted by the competing contradas on that same night.We met Gina on the outskirts of Siena and she led us through the circuitous streets into the Campo, which was filled to capacity with a mix of locals and tourists. The Palio is the main event, but the Prova Generale is the opening act, and the next best thing. We made our way through a crowded restaurant to a rear door and up a narrow staircase to an overcrowded balcony with a perfect view of the Campo. The prices for these tickets to watch what is essentially a warm-up were about $100 each, but the next day, for the real race, even standing-room-only tickets for the balconies and grandstands would go for upwards of $500 each.The view was stunning. Half of the Campo was basking in the early evening sun, while the other half was beginning to cool in the shadows. The windows of the buildings overlooking the square were packed with people craning for a look at the pageantry below. There was a palpable excitement in the air and this was just for a trial run. Perhaps 25,000 fans and tourists had made their way into the center of the Campo; surrounding them was a yellow clay track that had been laid down for the race.For about an hour we sat and took in the sights as the members of the various contradas sang their songs and waved their colorful flags. Suddenly, from one corner of the Campo, a phalanx of impressively-large horses took to the track. Astride were military officers dressed in regal attire from the 1800s, riding ferociously in formation, their swords pointed in unison as they circled the track at high speed. The crowd responded to this military procession with a roar that drowned out even the sound of the thundering hooves. Throughout the event, Gina was a fount of information. She told us about the contradas, how each one had its own colors and was identified with a particular animal or insect. Her adopted contrada of Selva, for example, is associated with the rhinoceros, and striking green and orange colors. Other contradas have caterpillars, owls or snails. The affinity of each Siennese for his or her contrada of birth is vitally important, much more so than any association with a school, company or even the name they may take when they marry. If you are born in the contrada of Oca, then you are, for all eternity, from the Goose and your colors will always be white and green. Gina explained that some contradas have formed ancient alliances and work together to keep other contradas from winning the Palio. There are deals and arrangements called the partitti made by the captains of the competing contradas that go a long way toward determining who wins, loses and even finishes a given Palio. There is no betting on the race in Siena, but vast sums change hands in the form of bribes and agreements between the contradas.It was all very West Side Story, but also overwhelmingly complicated. It is relatively easy to grasp the animosity between, say, Dodger fans and Yankee fans, but these Siennese relationships ran much deeper 500 years deeper.As we listened to Gina and tried to grasp the details, cheers erupted as the horses rode into the Campo with their jockeys up.The horses lined up between two ropes, bouncing and banging off each other as the riders angled for position. Suddenly the rope dropped and for just an instant there was an attack by the horses and their riders for the lead. But, just as quickly, the riders slowed their mounts to a trot. They ran three laps, the same distance they would travel the following day, but the horses simply jogged the course; no rider wanted to tip his hand or indicate his strategy for the next days race.
Our heads spinning, we left the Campo and Gina escorted us to the main square in the Civetta district, where we had secured seats for dinner. All around Siena, powerful spotlights lit the walls of the city as the contradas began to seat hundreds at their elaborate feasts.In the main square in front of the church of Civetta, long tables were set for 300 to 400 people. At the head of the square on the church steps there was a dais with dignitaries and, seated next to the capitano of Civetta, the jockey for Civetta horse, who was the honored guest of the night. Waiters in bow ties and white waistcoats brought bowls of fresh pasta, farm-fresh bruschetta, salad greens with pecorino cheese and huge plates of beef with spicy green peppers that had been grilled over charcoal fires just behind the square. The food was prodigious and magnificent. Each table had an endless supply of Chianti provided by a member of the contrada; the labels featured the red and black colors of the contrada known as the owl.As the evening wore on and the wine flowed, there was singing throughout the square. On one side of a table, young girls held hands and swayed in time as they sang a song that required an answer from the boys on the opposite side, who in turn sang in unison. There were speeches from the dignitaries and the jockey said a few words, much to the delight of the attendees.The camaraderie of the attendees and their joy of being at this event and remember they do this every year, twice a year was indescribable. I cant begin to relate it to any other event I have seen, so I decided it was simply a timeless occasion in a timeless city.After midnight who knows how long after midnight, as we had lost track of, well, time we filed out of the square, very full, very tipsy and very honored to have been included. Tomorrow would be the Palio.
Race day began slowly, a fact likely attributable to the cobwebs hanging in the heads of all who attended the previous nights dinners. By mid-afternoon the streets had begun to fill and the members of the contradas gathered at museums in each of their neighborhoods. The lucky ones, who had been chosen to march in the processionals to the Campo and in the pre-race parade, were changing into colorful Renaissance costumes. There was a celebratory feeling in the streets and a heightened sense of anticipation on every face. One of the special rituals of race day is the blessing of each horse and jockey. Each contrada has its own church and on the morning of the race the horses are led into the churches, one in each contrada, where a priest blesses them, says a prayer for their safety and usually a final prayer for victory. The sight of a horse and the assembled members of the neighborhood packing in to get an edge from the almighty is unique, to say the least.Perhaps even more special is the belief that if the horse defecates in the church during the blessing it is a symbol of good luck.Following the blessings, the comparsa, as the costumed marchers are called, convene at the Duomo, the massive cathedral not far from the Piazza del Campo. Here the days festivities really kick in; the crowd surrounds the elegantly dressed comparsa as they beat drums, perform acrobatic feats and toss their colorful flags high in the sky, catching them just before they hit the ground. For the next two hours they march through the city and then enter the Campo for a pre-race parade. One of their stops is at the hospital, so that those who are too sick or old to attend the Palio itself can still participate.We met Gina again on the outskirts of the city. We had decided to watch the race from the center of the Campo, despite the cheek-to-jowl crowds. We felt it best to save the $1,000-plus that prime seats would cost, leaving them for the likes of Tom Hanks, who had brought his family for the race and occupied a prime window in an even primer apartment.Besides, we thought, this is how the people see the race. Fortunately, we had someone who knew the town. Finding a clean bathroom, a good slice of pizza and a clear path to the Campo on race day are not easy tasks, but Gina accomplished all three. Within an hour, we were standing in the center of the Campo next to the famed Fonte Gaia on a slight rise that allowed us to see the start and finish line, as well as the treacherous San Martino corner, where horses and jockeys often tumble in defeat. It was both hot and crowded, but we were surrounded by people from all over the world who had come with the same goal to be part of one of the worlds great sporting and cultural events.For close to two hours the colorful parade circled the Campo. Gina tried to explain what was happening as each group entered the Campo, but it was simply overwhelming. A virtual history of Siena paraded past us, with all the wars and plagues and religious figures and suppressed contradas and … well, you get the idea.The crowning moment came when a wooden cart drawn by four enormous and I mean bigger than any animal I have ever seen oxen entered the track with the Palio flying above. The Palio is the banner from which the race takes its name. It is different for each race, but always has a vision of the Virgin Mary on it. It is the most prized piece of cloth in a city that boasts some outstanding fabric.As the wagon and the oxen and the flag circle the Campo, trumpets blare and the Siennese bow their heads to the Palio. Once the flag takes its place near the start line and next to the judges podium, everyone knows the race is about to begin.
As if synchronized, the parade wound down, the sun began to set and the crowds spirits rose to frenzy.Inside an adjacent courtyard the jockeys went through their pre-race rituals. They poured water on the inside legs of their pants to better grip the horse. They were frisked to ensure they didnt have any weapons that could injure another horse and rider. They listened to the final whispered words of strategy and admonition from the capitanos. When the starter called out A cavalla!, or to your horses, they mounted up and prepared to race. One can only imagine what it feels like to enter the Campo at twilight with 60,000 people, many with passions so intense it brought them to tears, screaming their respective lungs out. The jockeys were each handed a whip as they enter that is called a nerbo. A nerbo is a two-and-a-half foot long dried calf phallus. Thats right two and a half feet of dried calf phallus. The nerbo can prod a horse with a flick of a wrist as easily as it can cut a competing rider to the bone. As the crowd roared, the starter, one of the few in the Campo who knows the secret start order, began to call the horses to enter a space on the track between two ropes the start and finish line. One by one the horses entered, full of vim, vigor and who knows what else. They bounced, reared and jumped with nostrils flaring and eyes wide. Somehow the jockeys maintained their upright positions. When nine horses were inside the ropes, the starter called for the 10th horse, known as the rincorsa, which means to run fast. The rincorsa sprints from behind, the rope is dropped and the race is on maybe. For reasons as clear as life and death to the Siennese (but totally confounding to me and other uninitiated souls who were jacked to see the race), a cannon was fired, indicating a false start. The horses returned to the line and the whole process began again. And again. And again. There can be any number of false starts. Each time the race started, the crowd went bonkers and it seemed as if one horse or another gained the dominant position. But back they went, amid loud protests from the contrada that had the lead. At our race there were a handful of such starts.
Fortunately I didnt blink. Just when I thought the race would never start, the rope dropped, the crowd roared and the race was on. A gray horse, the only gray in the race, started in the fourth position and grabbed the lead just yards into the race on the outside of the track. An older man standing next to me, who was obviously alone and had not said a word for the previous two hours, suddenly erupted in screams of admonition. I noticed for the first time that he was wearing the scarf of Oca, the goose, and when I looked up at the horses the gray was under a jockey wearing green and white.Oca was in the lead.By the time the horses reached the dangerous San Martino corner, Oca had a three-length lead over a tight pack. Then in an instant, the pack disappeared. Two horses smashed first into each other and then into the padded wall, spilling the riders, who covered up in the clay hoping that the blessing they had received earlier that morning would protect them from being trampled. The stumble created more room for Oca; the race was not even close.Until the final turn, that is. After three laps Oca had a lead of two to three lengths on the horse from Nicchio. But as the two headed for the last turn before the finish, a horse that had previously fallen was running at full gallop in the opposite direction, right into the turn.It could have been tragic, but Ocas jockey pulled up just in time to avoid the head-on collision. His quick response, however, gave Nicchio at least a length, maybe more. Not to be deterred, Ocas jockey went to the nerbo, repeatedly striking his horse as he crossed the finish line.You would have thought the world had ended and the rapture was upon us. The man next to me screamed and tears of joy ran down his face. The members of the Oca contrada left their seats as one and charged toward their victorious horse and rider. Some climbed the tower to grab the Palio banner and begin the parade back to their home church.I was exhausted. In 90 seconds, the greatest sporting event I had ever seen had come and gone. Timeless.
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CorrectionIn The trip to the track story from Aug. 17, dates concerning the history of the Palio were transposed. The passage should have read In 1583 the races that we know today became a yearly activity with a July race as the focal point. In 1802 an August race was added the calendar.Also in the issue the Italian word used to designate the assigning of horses for the Palio was misspelled. The correct spelling is tratta.
The Palio is run just twice a year, but in Tuscany eating and drinking are everyday celebrations of life. We were fortunate enough to connect with Gina Stipo, an American living La Dolce Vita in Tuscany, where she writes cookbooks, conducts culinary tours and teaches hands-on cooking classes.In the days following the Palio, Gina came to our rented villa in Montestigliano to share with us some secrets of the region. Each evening began with Chianti, the wine that predominates in the area and is made from sangiovese grapes. It is the perfect accompaniment to the flavorful foods of Tuscany.One evening we made a traditional Florentine mixed grill that was as tasty as it was simple. The main event was huge porterhouse steaks form the local Chianina cattle, or bistecca alla fiorentina, that Gina simply bathed in extra-virgin olive oil and seasoned liberally with salt and pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice. Perhaps it was the wood-burning fire in our kitchen fireplace or the high heat that seared the exterior of the meat crisp while leaving the interior a barely cooked shade of pink; maybe it was the cut of meat itself that came from the local butcher. But this was the best steak I have ever had in my life. The rest of the grill included riblets of pig, pancetta (bacon) and lamb.To duplicate it, I fear I must return to Tuscany.On another evening Gina instructed us in the process of making raviolis and delicate cheese-filled squash blossoms. Everything we made was fresh, sumptuous and of the place. Each bite was a revelation and we came to understand the Tuscans special relationship with food and wine. They take their time, they eat what they raise and what they grow, and they appreciate the art of dining.Gina can be reached at eccolacucina.com, where you can see itineraries and a price list for her cooking classes and excursions. Her sister, Mary Potter, runs a vacation home and rental service and arranges group and individual tours. She can be found at GoItalyHomes.com. The two are offering a pair of culinary tours in October.Ginas cookbook, Ecco la Cucina, can be found on her website, but she has agreed to allow the use of the following recipe. Squash blossoms are in season here in Colorado, and you can find them and everything else in this recipe at the Saturday Aspen Farmers Market. Kelly Hayes