The trip to the track
August 14, 2008
SIENA, Italy Would you travel 5,560 miles for a 90-second horse race?Last June, my wife and I had an opportunity to see the Palio, a horse race in the ancient city of Siena in the heart of Italys Tuscany region. All I can say is that if you ever have such an opportunity, take it and go no matter what.I had long ago heard about the Palio and it was on the proverbial 100 things to do in life list that we all have in one form or another, but the possibility of actually going seemed remote. I knew that it was a horse race around a medieval Roman square where the jockeys rode bareback and there was potential carnage at every turn. I also had a vague idea that there was some sort of local pride (think Alabama-Auburn or Harvard-Yale) at stake. Beyond that I didnt really have a clue.We began our journey to the 90-second race with 18 hours of airline travel to Rome via Frankfurt and Zurich (dont ask). Once there, we picked up a sprightly Alfa Romeo for the drive to Tuscany. We were exhausted from the flights, so the thought of a meal and a night in a lakeside inn sounded just right. Placed ideally for that specific purpose, just 60 clicks up the road from Romes Fiumicino Airport is Lake Bracciano, a scenic town on the shores of a crystal clear, no-boats-allowed reservoir that supplies Rome with fresh drinking water. A pizza in the piazza and a bottle of Chianti under the bright bulbs that illuminated the languid late-night crowd in the square and we were done, our transformation from airline terminals to the pace of Italian living complete.
The must-stop on a visit to Bracciano is the Odescalchi Castle. Built above the lake in the 15th Century, it is renowned as one of Europes finest surviving feudal castles. For a time it served as the summer home of the randy and impulsive Isabella de Medici, of the Florence Medicis, and the man to whom she was betrothed, the wicked and equally impulsive Paolo Giordano Orsini.It is said that Isabella would take lovers to a bedroom in the Castle and, when finished with them, would urge them to exit via a secret back door. Unfortunately, and unbeknownst to the lovers, the door led to a long fall into a cavern dissected by sharp blades that would reduce them to, well, flotsam and jetsam, before their remains fell to the lake below.A myth, perhaps, but delightfully gruesome. What is not a myth is that the Odescalchi Castle served as the site of a lavish wedding for a couple that pass for royalty in these modern times. Yes, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes tied the knot in 2006 above the waters of Lake Bracciano. Both the bride and groom wore Armani and the ceremony featured the dulcet tones of heartthrob Andrea Bocelli. It must have been so Medici. It should be noted that things did not end well for the Orsini-Medici union. After Isabellas father passed away, Isabella became fair game for her devilish, conniving husband. In 1576 on a hunting trip, Isabella became the prey and was killed by Orsini, who was enraged that his wife, the first lady of Florence, had dallied with his own cousin.Hopefully things will turn out better for the Tomkats.
Our historic and celebrity needs satiated, we hit the road for the exquisite drive to Tuscany. One can travel at high speeds on the A-1 from Rome to Siena in a little under three hours, but one of the joys of having an Alfa under ones command is the opportunity to drive the twisty back roads that link one impossibly picturesque Italian village with the next. What could have taken a few hours took us an entire magical day as we sped past fields of sunflowers and summer vineyards, then slowed to a crawl as we traversed the narrow streets of the tiny and timeless hilltop villages. Before we left, we had arranged to meet an American expatriate who had been living in Tuscany for a decade and giving lessons in Italian cooking. On June 29, four days before the Palio, we were to meet Gina Stipo for lunch in Sienas central plaza, the Campo. Gina hails from Washington, D.C., but has effectively become a citizen of the Siena region. She has developed a passion for the Palio and has even become an adopted member of the Selva contrada, but more about that later.After parking outside the walled city, we made our way through the shadows of the pedestrian-only streets to find Gina in the Campo.
The Piazza del Campo dates to the 13th century. Ringed by five-story buildings with huge windows that overlook the brick and travertine expanse, the piazza is one of the greatest surviving medieval squares. There are 11 separate entrances where one emerges from the shadows into brilliant sunshine at the very heart of Siena. Entering the Piazza Campo is an unforgettable experience. At one side of the piazza is the Torre del Mangia, or The Tower of the Eater, which sits adjacent to the Town Hall; at the other a famous fountain called the Fonte Gaia, which serves as a meeting place for people from all over the globe when they visit Siena.It is said that the piazza is one of the few in Italy left intact following the Second World War. Legend has it that the square was spared an Allied air strike thanks largely to an American serviceman who alerted the planes that the town was in friendly hands. We met Gina at the Fonte Gaia, and quickly found a table under the umbrellas at one of the crowded cafs on the plazas south side. She began to explain the Palio, which is a formidable task in itself. The passion, politics and posturing that surround the race are so intricate and so nuanced that even those who have lived and followed the races for generations are hard pressed to explain it. But Gina gave us a great Readers Digest version.It seems that the first records of the competition called the Palio date to the year 1238, which means an 800th anniversary may be just 30 short years away. As is the case with most things Italian, the origins of the event are based on religion. Various contests and events were held in Piazza del Campo to pay homage to the Virgin Mary and other patron saints. The winners of these events were awarded a rectangular flag called a pallium in latin and the events themselves eventually became known as a Palio.In 1583 the races that we know today became a yearly activity with an August horse race as the focal point. In 1802, a July race was added to the calendar.Nowadays, races between 10 horses occur every year on July 2 and Aug. 16 in the Piazza del Campo. These 10 horses, ridden bareback by professional jockeys, circle the piazza three times on a dirt track that has been laid down over the bricks. Each of the horses represents a contrada, a district of the city, and each is adorned with the colors of that contrada. The horse that crosses the finish line first, whether the jockey remains on that horse or not, wins a banner adorned with an image of the Virgin Mary. The banner is called a Palio.There are 17 separate contradas think of them as neighborhoods, parishes or counties and the competition between them is fierce. Each contrada has adopted the image of an animal to represent them. The contrada of Civetta is The Owl, Bruco is The Caterpillar and Ginas beloved Selva is The Rhinoceros under an Oak Tree.
As we downed a Peroni and a pizza in the piazza (I like writing that phrase, but not quite as much as actually doing it) and tried to digest all that Gina told us, the crowd across the Piazza grew. It was, Gina explained, time for the trata, the ritual event where the 10 horses are assigned to the competing contradas. While the Palio is a year-round event, and arguably a way of life, with regular dinners, festivals and other official activities, the real excitement begins June 29 with this vitally important selection of horses.As the crowd pinched in, the mayor of Siena stood on a podium in front of the Town Hall, surrounded by members of the contradas adorned in kerchiefs with the colors of their allegiance and waving flags. Each contrada had representatives dressed in colorful costumes denoting their brethren.On one side of the mayor was a giant rotating drum called an urn with 10 capsules inside, each capsule containing the name of a contrada. On the other side of the mayor was another urn with capsules representing the horses in the draw. The mayor drew the capsules with great flair and drama from the urns, and the horses to run in the race were thus assigned to the contradas.The reaction in the piazza was almost too intense to believe as the horses were assigned. If a contrada was blessed with a good horse, then the cheers were deafening. Young men broke out in tears and hugged each other; fists pierced the sky. Those who drew a less-than-stellar horse also cried. Word of who has drawn which horse circulated swiftly through the city.You might think that the next step would be betting on the horses, but the Palio is too serious for betting. Money certainly changes hands as contradas some rich, some not so begin paying off one another to help defeat enemy contradas. To the Siennese, however, the Palio is more important than the opportunity to bet; it is, in fact, nearly as important as life itself.As we watched the horses being led away, we tried to process all we had seen. The intensity of the competing contradas was palpable. You could feel that the upcoming race would transcend sport, and that it would be well worth the long journey. With plans made to meet Sunday night for the prova general, or trial race, and dinner in one of the contradas, we said farewell to Gina and headed for our destination that evening, our Home Away just outside of a tiny town called Rosia.
In recent years Tuscany has become a vacation haven for the rich and famous. Many feudal farms and towns have been purchased and renovated into high-priced refuges for travelers, especially from Great Britain, the U.S. and Germany. A drive up the dusty roads outside Tuscan towns will find 16th-, 17th- and 18th-century farmhouses that have been magically transformed into designer homes with all the comforts of modern living.Such was the Villa Nel Bosco, where we stayed. Homes Away, a Canadian company that specializes in the quintessential villa vacation, represents a number of Tuscan villas and homes throughout the world.We drove a dusty road up to a collection of buildings on a 2,500-acre estate called Montestigliano. Though located on a working farm, the houses at the end of the Cypress-lined drive have been converted into vacation residences. The view from atop the hill over the Tuscan farmlands to the Apennine Mountains is breathtaking.Arriving at our villa, we were simply knocked out. The seven-bedroom restored farmhouse was surrounded by gardens and olive groves and a welcoming swimming pool. Inside the cool stone house, each room was elegant and simple. When we saw the kitchen with the wood-burning oven (there was a second wood-burning pizza oven in the courtyard), we knew where our headquarters would be.Lorenza, our bilingual local host, greeted us and gave us the where-to and whats-up of the area. Part of the Homes Away experience is to provide visitors a real feel for the region, and Lorenza was an immense help in introducing us to Tuscany. The swimming pool was perfect on the 90-degree summer afternoon. The fountain at one end and the infinity edge overlooking the undisturbed Siennese hills were intoxicating.That night we lit the fire to grill a meal procured from local markets and opened a bottle of Brunello. As we ate, the sun slipped low in the sky and cast a golden glow on the villa that some call Pipistreli or the bat house for what would become an obvious reason. All was right with the world and we looked forward to the spectacle of the Palio. Next week the rope drops and the race is on.