Siena Skyline (15129 bytes)

Medieval Ballooning

Siena, Italy
June 26 - July 7, 1998

Journal by Paul

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Part Three: The Palio

Continuing from Pre-Palio Days

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Wednesday, July 1, 1998

sun.gif (1391 bytes)It's another perfect weather day! Today, the festival kicks into high gear, with an evening practice race followed by dinner with the Unicorn contrada. But first: more ballooning at dawn!

Starting with our wake-up call at 5:00 am (which arrived very promptly) and continuing until after the contrada dinner -- which could last until who knows when? -- today will be a very long day. We would be well advised to look for nap time where available.

We drove out to a point southeast of Siena, hoping that the winds would blow us straight toward the heart of the city. Once we got there, though, the test balloons suggested that we might prefer simply touring through the countryside near the city once again. Of course, that was just fine, too. It's pretty much impossible to have an unfabulous flight around here.

Once again, we floated over the vineyards near Siena. So many of the buildings here are hundreds of years old; there's a sense of history that far exceeds anything we might find back home. We drifted very closely past a beautiful castle. Several people waved at us from the windows. One fellow appeared not to be wearing any clothing as he greeted us; the window sill was placed at a level that almost, but not quite, afforded him a proper greeting stance.

While in the air, we had a paper airplane contest. We built the fuselages from Park Hotel note paper, about four by six inches. Alf's plane, the first one launched, won the endurance test: It took almost two minutes to reach the ground. Mine was a serious contender in the assault category: It shot to the ground in only 20 seconds. Annie's was even faster, though, arriving in just 15. Some of the entries made beautiful circles through the sky on their way down. We were all quite proud of ourselves.

When it came time to land, we had some difficulty finding a site. We almost settled on one, and the crew was out in the field far away from their vehicles, but the location proved unsatisfactory. We increased our elevation and flew away, thus sending the crew scurrying back to their chase truck. There simply aren't enough open fields in this area, especially when it gets past 8:30 and the winds start shifting in wild and unpredictable ways.

After a few minutes we picked out a spot that looked less bad than any other options. Of course, the crew was far away at this point, still trying to navigate the winding roads that might get them to the area we had reached through our straight-line flight. We landed and watched the huge envelope over our heads blow back and forth in the shifting winds while we waited for the crew to find us.

After a few very long minutes, we saw Dan running toward us at full speed, through a yard full of olive trees. We were very happy to see him. The rest of the crew followed shortly. The balloon had to be deflated into the wind, because there wasn't enough room in the other direction. This is a difficult procedure, because the wind really wants it to fall in the other direction. The crew grabbed the crown line and pulled for all they were worth (which was, as we kept discovering, quite a lot). Robin and Brian and I hopped out of the basket and helped turn it for a proper orientation. Once everything was set, the two of them ran to help pull the crown line to help coax the envelope down in the right place. I joined them once all the really hard work was done.

We had our post-landing ceremony with champagne, water, orange juice and pastries, and then we fled the scene in the Previa that the crew somehow managed to get into our nearly-inaccessible landing site. Back at the hotel, we all decided to visit the breakfast buffet. All except Robin, that is: He had been eyeing the hotel's golf course for some time, and he decided that this was the day to try it out.


After our breakfast, and after Robin's 21 holes of golf, it was just about time to leave for lunch. Today we went to the Villa Geggiano, an amazing 15th century estate. It remains a private home, owned by the Contessa Bianchi Bandellini, and our host was her son Andrea and his wife Sandra. They were great fun. Andrea pointed out the antique wooden horse that had been a gift from the town about 300 years ago. It had lots of scuffs and bruises that Andrea himself had caused as a child when he rode it constantly. He decided it was probably better for his children to use other toys.

The lunch was fabulous, of course. We had bow-tie pasta with marvelous fresh vegetables, accompanied by the Villa's own delightful Chianti wine. I probably had a bit more of everything than I should have; it's difficult to stop when the flavors are so amazing. Andrea then took us on a tour of the house, where we saw lots of remarkable things, including the bed where Pope Pius VI had slept when he was in the area.


In the evening, we went to a trial race in the Piazza di Campo. We were somewhat delayed in our trip to town because your hard-working chronicler of this trip apparently hadn't worked out the details of his travel alarm clock. Instead, an abrupt end to sleep came by way of a phone call from Michael, with words that sought to cut through the cobwebs of a sleepy mind. The details were lost in fog, but the basic point that we were supposed to have already left the hotel eight minutes earlier sliced its way home.

Tonight's race was the fifth of six trial runs, and it was the best attended. Buddy had arranged for us to have standing room on a second-floor balcony over a small shop. We could see the entire course, and we were right on top of a critical turn in the track. Below us in the bleachers were a couple dozen dangerous-looking girls from the Pantera contrada, who were drinking wine out of the bottle, smoking lots of cigarettes, and belting out the Palio song with great urgency. They were obviously filled with enthusiasm. The center of the piazza was completely filled with spectators. Although this was just a trial run, you would never have suspected that from the size and excitement of the crowd.

The trial run went very quickly and without incident. Since the actual race was to be run the next day, the jockeys were very careful not to do anything risky. In the event a horse was injured in any way, that contrada would be out of the race: No substitutions are permitted.

After the run, we went to have dinner with the Unicorn contrada. They had set up long tables that wound through one of the narrow streets of their district. The tables were lined with bottles of red wine and olive oil. We dug right into the wine. Annie had brought along a Polaroid camera, and she shot some great pictures of some of the people in our party.

The pre-Palio night dinners of the contrade go on for many hours. We left as the hour neared midnight, just as the third or fourth course was being served. The food was very good, and we were having a great deal of fun, but it had been a very long day and we were ready for bed. We walked through the streets of Siena, around the blocked-off streets where other contrade were having their dinners, and found our Previa steeds that would take us back to the Park Hotel. Tomorrow there would be no ballooning, so we would not need to wake up in four or five hours; instead, we would meet for breakfast at 9:30.


Thursday, July 2, 1998 - Palio Day

And we did meet for breakfast at 9:30. The buffet at the Park Hotel is very good, although we're eating the sorts of things that most of us would not ordinarily have first thing in the morning: eggs, sausages, bacon, cold cuts. The fruits are good, too, especially the melons. And there is ample juice and coffee to get us jump-started. Of course, with the leisurely start time of 9:30, we're not hurting too badly.

It's the day of the Palio! There isn't much on our agendas except for that. We decided at breakfast that we would go downtown to explore some shops and have lunch. Annie, Brian, Lisa, Robin, Stephani, Steve and I hopped into a Previa and headed for the excitement.

The drama was plainly building in Siena: For the past couple of days it had been getting ever more crowded, and today there were more people still. Yet the streets were still easily navigable, and we had no trouble getting around.

One of our main shopping missions was hat-related. We knew that we would be sitting out in the sun for quite a while during the initial phases of the Palio ceremony, and the sun was brutal. If we were to avoid spontaneous combustion of the flesh, a bit of protection was essential. Some were already equipped with baseball caps, but Stephani and I remained in the market for appropriate toppings. We found what we needed in a little hat shop. Stephani's selection was almost too small for her, but given the increasing winds, its snugness also had its advantages. Mine was a bit too large, but it seemed to be the best choice from a style perspective. It did make me feel a bit like Truman Capote, but there was nothing particularly wrong with that.

Several of us had been yearning for pizza, and we hadn't had any yet. We were now able to find a nice little place with a wood-burning brick oven; it looked like just what we had in mind. It was situated next door to a bus garage, and the sidewalks around it were functioning as a motor scooter parking lot, but the ambiance was still fine for us. We sat outside and ordered pizzas and beers. Mine had prosciutto, mushrooms and olives; others were otherwise topped. Brian opted for a delightful calzone, and Stephani had cold prosciutto and mozzarella. It was all just fine. Indeed, the pizzas were almost as good as the marvelous ones they make in the town near Chateau d'Oex. Why don't they have these in the U.S., instead of Pizza Hut?

We were supposed to rendezvous with the extended Bombard group at the hotel at 3:30 in order to head down to the Palio, so we boarded our Previa and headed back. We had just enough time to prepare ourselves, load up with film and water, change clothes if we wanted, and breathe a few anticipatory deep breaths.


We went back into Siena, and into the Piazza di Campo. The central "infield" area was already starting to fill up, although there was still considerable space. Since it was entirely paved, it had to be very oven-like there. Also, the contrada members who would be taking up most of that space were probably still involved in some of their pre-race activities, so they couldn't be there yet.

Our seats were in sections 43 and 44 ... and although they were initially in the sun, their location was excellent. Also, as the sun passed through the sky, we could see that the shade of the surrounding buildings was going to reach us and soothe us before too long. Among our seats were several in the front row, right behind the wall that ringed the track. Seated in Row 1 were Robin, Stephani, Steve, Annie, Buddy, Brian and Lisa. I sat behind Lisa, with Mike behind me. The rest of the Bombard entourage filled in the seats around us.


The pre-race ceremony of the Palio lasts for a couple of hours. Each of the contrade that are competing in the race parades around the track with its horse and its standard bearers. The pageantry is spectacular, to say the least, especially since it is so obviously imbued with the tradition of hundreds and hundreds of years. The colors and ornateness of the costumes and the flags are breathtaking, and the majesty of the entire procession is inspiring.

After the participating contrade come the seven contrade who will not be running in this day's race. When they have spread out to fill the entire track, they perform exceptional, simultaneous flag routines. They may not have horses with them; they may not be racing today; but they too represent their neighborhoods with pride and excellence. After all the contrade have passed, the Palio itself -- the prize banner after which the race is named -- is carted through the piazza behind a team of oxen. It is beautiful indeed, but of course it is only symbolic of what constitutes the Palio tradition in Siena.


The track is swept again, and once everything is clear, a cannon is fired. So cued, the ten horses of the participating contrade enter the arena.

The start of the race is far different from an American horse race. The horses are lined up, one by one, in the positions that have been assigned to them. They simply stand next to one another in an area behind a rope, however; they are not separated by stalls. Keeping them lined up can thus be a bit dicey. After nine of the horses are lined up and settled down, the tenth jockey -- in this running, the one representing Onde, the Wave -- is given permission to enter the line. Once the tenth horse reaches the starting line, the race begins.

But Onde is not required to approach the rope immediately when the other nine are lined up. Instead, it is within that jockey's discretion when to approach the rope. This power is substantial: Everything must await the tenth jockey. And it can take a long time before he makes his move. With the nine in place, Onde circled around repeatedly. Of course, after a period of time, the other horses would get restless and fall out of their formation. When that happened, they would need to be lined up once again, and only then was Onde authorized to start the race.

As the tenth horse, Onde would be running in the outermost position on the track. This was a considerable disadvantage; indeed, the horse in the first position wins the Palio much more frequently than any other. But Onde did have the right to start the whole thing, and it could do so with a running start from some distance behind the rope.

Ultimately, it took over half an hour from the time the horses first lined up until Onde made its move. During that time that, all the horses were walked about and entirely repositioned three times, and there were several other minor adjustments. For all this time, though, the crowd of 35,000 people waited patiently. It is inconceivable that such a thing could happen in the United States: With Onde "delaying" the race, spectators would be throwing beer bottles at the horse and yelling after 90 seconds or so. But here, it was recognized as part of the strategy and part of the tradition, and it added to the flavor and the tension. Of course, in the United States, this event would not even be the "Palio" ... it would be the "Gillette Foamy Palio" or some such thing.


The race itself consists of three laps, and it lasts about 90 seconds. From the start, Oca the White Goose was in front, with Bruco the Caterpillar close behind in second. None of us had selected Oca as our contrada, but Mike, Lisa and I were all pulling for Bruco, so it was thrilling to see the Bruco horse in such a great position. The horses galloped past on their first lap, and thanks to our good seats we were even dusted in the face with some little chunks of track dirt kicked up from the horses' hooves.

On the second lap, it was still Oca and Bruco. The Bruco jockey appeared to have a chance, but he was gaining little ground. Indeed, some of us weren't sure that he was really committed to winning, although it is perhaps unfair to impugn him. There is a long and rich history of bribes from competing contrade going to jockeys who agree not to win. Could this be Bruco's fate today? The horse was plainly very good, which was a nice surprise: This was his first Palio, and so very little was known of him.

Ultimately, Oca the White Goose won. Bruco the Caterpillar, the contrada that Mike, Lisa and I favored, came in second. This finish was the worst imaginable: There is far less shame in finishing last, because the second place winner had a much better chance but squandered it. Two of the horses finished without jockeys: There are no saddles in the Palio, and it is common for some of the riders to be thrown during the race. This does not disqualify the horse, and it might even result in a better finish. Indeed, the third-place horse finished without a rider.

After the race was over, there was complete pandemonium. Spectators leapt from the stands, grooms tried to catch their horses, jockeys were whisked away. A group of burley fellows pulled the Pantera jockey off his horse right in front of us and quickly escorted him from the piazza. We were unsure whether they were his friends, or if they were the Retribution Division of the Pantera contrada. They did not look very friendly as they hauled him off, and he did not look very happy with his perceived prospects.

Then the contrade members marched out of the piazza with their horses. The Oca were ecstatic beyond description. They were crying and hugging each other. The other contrade were utterly inconsolable. They were crying and hugging each other.


We waited in the stands for quite a while in order to let some of the crowds clear. The entire piazza is ringed with seats, and getting so many thousand people through the bottleneck exits takes time. There was much to see, however, as the drama of the Palio continued to play out.

Eventually, we were able to exit the arena. It was about 9:00 now, and time for dinner. Mike had made reservations for our group at a small restaurant on a side street very close to the piazza. Buddy was taking his larger group to another restaurant. When we got to our restaurant, they were still just in the process of setting up. They had not been able to have tables out in the narrow street while the large crowds were passing out of the piazza, and now that the crowd was abating they sprang into action. When they were almost ready, the French Prime Minister arrived with his entourage, and things were slowed down a bit more. The Prime Minister was whisked upstairs, and while his security men watched us with skepticism, we entered and were seated at our large table by the open air window.

Dinner was good, although by this point we had become so spoiled that it seemed routine. But it was nice and leisurely, and the company was marvelous. We had four courses on a fixed menu. After our antipasto and pasta courses, the main course was veal and rabbit. Stephani was less than thrilled, as these constituted a complete one-third of her list of "animals I will not eat." Of course, by then we were so full that few of us cleared much from our plates.

We had dessert, we went back to the hotel, we went to bed. It was another long day, but another memorable one. Tomorrow, we would be able to sleep late again.

Next: Post-Palio Days

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