Back in the saddle

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Back in the saddle
Siena, Italy

Siena, Italy


After a revitalising stay in Chianti, the time sadly came to say arrivederci to the family who’d made us feel so much at home. Lucrezzia presented Ryan with a farewell drawing she’d done of two people especially for him. When asked who they were she said it was Ryan and “her” with a slightly menacing pointed finger towards me… at our wedding. With that, we got out of there pretty quickly and this time I was driving the getaway car!

When Ryan and I had talked about hiring a car, I made the decision that I’d learn to drive on the other side of the road. Although I’d like to think of myself as a capable and careful driver, I’m by no means a natural one – I wasn’t lining up to get my licence the minute I could and have never owned a car – so the idea of doing it on the opposite side of the road filled me with the exact kind of fear that this trip is about conquering. I was determined to learn primarily so I can hire a car during my upcoming trip with Mum and drive her around France. It’s about freedom, breaking down self-imposed barriers and becoming an adult in ways that I feel I haven’t been before.

I climbed into the left side of the Panda, feeling the fear and doing it anyway – I told myself my Mum’s trip depended on it and with that took a deep breath, turned the key in the ignition and pulled out. Considering I haven’t driven at all in almost 6 months, it was strange enough to be driving at all but to be on the completely wrong side of car and wrong side of the street on unfamiliar roads was positively unnatural! It has to be said that Ryan is a brilliant teacher – calm, clear, encouraging and kind. He put me completely at ease and in no time at all, I had the hang of it even though I kept whacking my left hand on the door every time I went to change gears.

The drive from Chianti to Siena gave me the full gamut of traffic conditions – narrow, winding country roads; crazy european freeway and finally; the gradual build up to city driving – including roundabouts (or roondaboots as my passenger kept calling them! Seriously, I don’t know what he’s saying half the time!). Of course, Siena isn’t just any old city, its a really old city with a really big wall around it through which only authorised vehicles may pass. Accordingly, we parked outside the walls and breached the perimeter on foot.

Our first order of business was to work out where we were staying while in Siena. We’d made arrangements through http://www.airbnb.com with a guy called Eugenio but he hadn’t actually confirmed our stay. We were hoping he had done so while we were in transit. All we needed now was to get connected and check our email. Easier said than done in an old town like Siena – even though it’s regarded as the second city of Tuscany, it’s still very parochial. Luckily we found an internet cafe and were greatly relieved that Eugenio had confirmed because our backup research had shown, there was no room at any other inn and we quickly discovered why…

As luck would have it, we’d landed in Siena just in time for Il Palio – an ancient, twice yearly horse race between the 10 parishes of Siena and the biggest event in the Sienese calendar. The city was already swollen with tourists, predominantly Italian, who’d come specifically for the race. Had we not been able to make arrangements with Eugenio, it may have meant a night in the Panda!

We rendezvoused at the designated gate and followed Eugenio in his car to his place, not at all far from the city walls. The house was huge with spectacular views over yet another picturesque Tuscan landscape. It looked very much like a family home, mostly because it was. Eugenio explained that he was a uni student and his parents were out of town on holidays so he decided to make some money renting out their place! It wasn’t entirely clear if they knew about it but that wasn’t our concern. Besides, Eugenio struck as a decent guy and even led us, in his car again, all the way across town to find a supermarket that was still open (most businesses were closed for Il Palio).

One of my favourite things to do in any new place is to go supermarket shopping to get an insight into local life but mostly to seek out hilariously named products (Scandanavia is the best for this with ‘plopp’ (chocolate bar), kack (liquorice), bog (pressed ham) and everyones favourite, ‘spunk’ (in salty or fruity flavours!). Aside from Fonzies (Italian name for Twisties), Siena fell short in this department but more than made up for it with the sheer volume and variety of products that we would pay a small fortune for in food boutiques but which are just part of everyday eating here. We left PAM supermarket fully loaded to take advantage of the fully equipped kitchen at our disposal and stunning terrace upon which to feast.

But of course, we didn’t come to Siena to just hang out at home and even though we hadn’t intentionally come for Il Palio either, our serendipitous timing made the centre of town the place to be. The lead up to the main event went on for days with parades, feasts and trial races. The different teams clearly marked their territories with colourful street lights, flags and tables stretching along entire lane ways to feed the many. It was the most flamboyant turf war I’ve seen since West Side Story!

The race itself is run in the Piazza del Campo – the stunning medieval shell-shaped ‘square’ renowned for its beauty and architectural integrity. Ordinarily, it’s a grand space that forms the heart of Sienese public life. During Il Palio however, that space is filled with thousands of people as it is transformed into a race track around which jockeys ride bareback for 3 laps. All this fuss and the race never lasts more than 90 seconds! So it has been since the 14th century and so it will continue to be for many more to come.

I’m not usually one for horse racing, I even boycott Melbourne Cup sweepstakes but somehow my resolve got swept away in the ceremony and pageantry of it all. I admit, it was very hypocritical of me but the atmosphere was infectious. It felt historical and yet so alive. Far from the privilege, pomp and ceremony that beleaguers the ‘sport’ in other parts of the world, the Il Palio felt more like a celebration of the community. I’m sure there were some fat cats watching from private balconies around the piazza but there was definitely no admission charged for the best seats in the house – the central ring.

It was a first in, best dressed scenario so we got there mid-afternoon and stretched out. I read a book while Ryan napped. As time went on, the piazza filled and we took up a more strategic position ring side. The air was electric! It was quite something to stand in that spot and look around at the people gathered in this medieval square and feel a part of history, albeit in such a minuscule way. The parading began with city and race officials on foot but it started to get exciting when The Generali came out in full regalia mounted on the biggest, blackest beauties I have ever seen! Such grace and poise, they looked like they’d trotted out of the pages of history and after doing a ceremonial lap, cut loose and thundered around track with their riders swords drawn. As they bolted passed, the ground shook from their might. It was truly thrilling.

The crowd was as fever pitch as The Generali exited the track and the Il Palio horses and jockeys took up their positions in their fancy pyjamas. I wondered if the reason it was apparently so common for horses to finish the race without their jockeys had something to do with the ill-advised choice of silk for bareback riding. But before I could finish the thought, they were off. Before I could resume the thought, they were finished! We all went wild and I don’t even know who won! In fairness, I didn’t really know who was competing either.

The crowd dispersed into their various team celebrations while we interlopers grabbed beers and roamed the streets between, connecting the parties that would go all night.


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