Il Palio, August 10 - 20, 1999

A Day at the Races

Continuing from Burgundy Ballooning

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David EricksonIt has been almost three years since Adriana (my lovely wife) and I have been on a balloon trip with my father. Yes, I am the prodigal son of Alf. Or, is he the prodigal father? This will be my first official journal. In October, 1996 I wrote "David and Adriana's Alternative France Journal." I posted it on my personal web site at the time, but it is posted here again to be recorded for posterity on During this trip I have a digital camera and I'm going to try to upload the journal and pictures in as close to real-time as possible. BTW - There is a Video website which will be broadcasting the Palio live starting on August 16. I don't know where they will be filming, but maybe you can get a glimpse of us doing something naughty when we think no one is looking.

Live Audio and Video Broadcast of the August 16, 1999 Palio

Tuesday, August 10, 1999

Travel Day. Last minute preparations. Bills to pay. Bring Woody (our dog) to our grandmother's house. Making a list and checking it twice. I think that will be meeting Rosemary and Richard at Miami International.

At 1:00 we tearfully dropped off Woody and returned home to remove patio furniture and any other loose items which might act like projectiles if a hurricane should pay South Florida a visit while we are away. Oscar, our doorman soon rang us that our ride was waiting and we wheeled our oversized baggage down.

We arrived two hours early but a huge line was already snaking its way from the Air France counter an incredible distance past several other airline counters. This announced the fact that we would not be sleeping across empty center aisle seats on this trip. It took about an hour to wind our way to the check-in counter. We kept looking for Rosemary and Richard while we waited. As my shoulder began to ache from my carry on stuffed with computer gear I began to suspect that they must be flying first class and had bypassed this line from hell and were sipping Bloody Marys in the Air France Napoleon Club or whatever their first class lounge is called. I began to hate them very much.

Finally we got to the gate and Rosemary and Richard were there waving to us. They had arrived even earlier than us and still had to wait half an hour to check-in. I made a mental apology to them as it was apparent they had not been being pampered in an airline club. We board, and although crowded, it seems rather roomy. Are these seats larger than normal? But then our lovely space disappeared as the passengers in front of us lean back their seats fully. We still have a half hour of passenger boarding yet! Don't they know that you don't lean your seats back while the airplane is on the ground. It's an unwritten rule. I grumble about their rudeness to Adriana, but the seatbacks stay in their position and I wish dandruff on them as I'm left to glare at the tops of their offending heads.

Did I mention that I'm trying to quit smoking today and that I misplaced my Nicorette gum?

Writing this journal has been good to pass the time on this flight and we are now just 30 minutes from landing. Dinner last night was a very good coq au vin which included a small package of extraordinarily ripe camembert. One thing about the French. They produce great smelly cheeses.

Wednesday, August 11, 1999

We changed planes at Charles de Gaulle and were met in Florence by Annie and Mike and a couple of the Bombard boys. It was about an hour into Siena and fighting exhaustion we checked into the Jolly Hotel and went out for a great lunch around the corner. On the way to our room and a nap, we popped in to see my father (heretofore referred to as Alf or the Alf-man rather than Dad or Pop) and Linda to say hello and make plans for the evening.

We all met in the Lobby and went out for our first real taste of Siena. Dinner was in the Piazza, the large square where the Palio is held. The weather is beautiful here today, about 80 during the day and dropping to 70 at night. Great night for cafe dining.

Thursday, August 12, 1999

5:30 AM wakeup call from Annie. We are going to fly! There was some doubt last night, as there was a cold front coming in from the north. But the Balloon-God is smiling on us. We grabbed a quick croissant, juice and coffee and jumped into the waiting Previas to get to the launch area. Today's launch site was about 5km outside of Siena in a parking lot full of sleeping vacationers in campers. If you've never been to a balloon inflation, you don't realize just how loud the burners are. Within minutes there were sleepy-eyed campers stumbling out to see what the loud whooshing noises were outside their homes on wheels. The balloon inflation takes about 20 minutes and it's a great time to sit around, talk, and wake up.

Up, up and away! As I said before, it's been three years since Adriana and I went ballooning and our excitement was rewarded in spades. Our flight took us out over the very pretty Tuscan countryside, which is dotted with villas and farms. As we approached Siena, people leaned out of their windows, came out of their houses and onto their apartment patios to wave to us in all manner of dress and undress. No naked people today, but a few bathrobes, slips and underwear. We flew through the center of Siena and almost over the Piazza del Campo, which was filled with people and horses for the pre-Palio selection of the steeds.

Mike made a perfect landing onto the balloon trailer in a field of harvested wheat. Normally, when we have landed in a farmer's field on our other trips, everyone who is within sight of the balloon comes by to say hello and take a look.
Strangely enough, no one came down to the balloon, even though the farmer and his wife were visible to us as we descended. Mike told us that is the norm here. People just mind their own business. If someone landed a balloon in my back yard I'd be just a touch curious to see who it is. Anyway, they gave us a friendly wave as left out of their driveway. I guess balloons just aren't their thing.

After our flight we took a walking tour of Siena with the delightful Donnatella. She is a handsomely beautiful woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of Siena history and great sense of humor. The streets here are so ancient and quaint. It was a wonderful walk.

We had lunch at the penthouse apartment of a wonderful family who have been recognized, on the wall of the "Righteous" in the Holocaust museum, for sheltering two Jewish families during the Fascist times and the Nazi occupation. The Matriarch, Marissa and her daughter Fiama served us a wonderful lunch and delightful company.

After lunch Adriana, Annie and I retired to an Irish Pub across from the Jolly. I had a pint of Harp which I raised in a toast to Brian and Lisa who very much wanted to be here too.

The rest of the day consisted of a nap and dinner in the hotel and an early retirement to write this journal.

Intermission: A Word from the House

Friday, August 13, 1999

Note: Apology from your journalist. I have been slightly under the weather and have neglected my duties. I now return to my policy of timely postings.

Today we got to catch up on our sleep. It rained all night and Adriana and I slept peacefully with our windows open to the sound.

After a relaxing morning, we all met downstairs for a viewing of a PBS documentary on the 1988 Palio. It was fairly interesting in that it followed the fortunes of, and interviewed the members of, two rival contrade, Onda and Torre. People of Siena are born into their contrade, which are geographically defined portions of Siena. As you walk through Siena you can see flags and emblems that tell you that you have passed from one contrada to another. Sienese are baptized by the Church and immediately taken to a second baptizing by their contrada, which is, by far, more important. The video captures the members' pride in their own contrada and their complete disdain for all others, especially their rival contrade, which usually are their bordering neighbors. The video gives you a good feeling of the build up of passions as Palio approaches and the intrigue and bribery that occurs as each contrada does whatever it can to win the Palio or to thwart the efforts of its enemies.

We had lunch at the Villa of Andrea and Sandra. The ubiquitous John (an ex-pat who has lived in Sienna for 20 years) welcomed us in the drive of their beautiful 12th century home. Andrea sat at our table and hit it off famously with Annie, talking about his sloop. After lunch they gave us a guided tour of their home.

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Annie, Dad, Linda, Adriana and I spent the afternoon shopping. However, navigating the streets is getting more and more difficult. The horses for each contrade were picked by lottery this morning and practice runs happened this afternoon. We went shopping just as the practice in the Piazza finished and the contrade were leading their horses through the streets back home. You have to move quickly to the side of the road when the contrade pass. At least a thousand people follow their horse through the streets, through winding alleyways, and fashionable shopping lanes. The Porcupine contrada, who have a lot of money this year, passed us looking really forlorn. I don't think they are very happy with their horse.

We ate in the hotel tonight.

Saturday, August 14, 1999

  1. Morning Ballooning
  2. Nap
  3. Lunch at the home of Constanza and Bettino.
  4. Pharmacy and Nap
  5. Dinner at Osteria Le Logge - Torre country.

Sunday, August 15, 1999

  1. Ballooning
  2. Lunch with Don Giovanni
  3. Palio Proba - The pre-Palio Trials
  4. Palio Dinner

Monday, August 16, 1999 - PALIO DAY

Palio left me speechless. Just look at the pictures. By the way, STING made an appearance at the PALIO with his wife and was in the balcony just above us.

Waiting and People Watching

The Processions

The Race

The Winners

Tuesday, August 17, 1999

Today we took a day trip to Florence to appreciate the the artistic splendors of this city.

Thursday, August 18, 1999

Today we went ballooning at San Gimignano, which is about 45 minutes from Sienna, so we needed to depart a little early. Annie called this morning at 4:30 AM. This is vacation? It was really worth getting up though. The countryside there is very hilly and it seems a little greener than the areas we have seen in Tuscany as of yet. There were early morning wisps of fog which added a bit of eeriness to the beauty. The best part of the flight was our touchdown spot. Mike put us down at the bottom of a little sloping vineyard. About a hundred yards from the balloon was an old couple standing together against the backdrop of a little stone cottage. I don't think they lived there, but it was great ambiance. They came over to check us out and also a few more neighbors and their dog. The dog was great, and since we are starting to miss Woody, extra appreciated.

After ballooning, we went into the town of San Gimignano to see the famed torture museum. It is a hilltop town and very scenic. It almost reminds me of Vezelay on the Burgundy trip. I bought some salami in a shop on the walk up the hill that was wonderfully garlicky. Great morning breath. We had to wait for Buddy's group, so we parked ourselves at an outdoor gelato and coffee place. I had some gelato to continue my morning grazing. It was wonderful.

The Museu Criminale Medioevale was really gruesome. Drawings demonstrated the use of torture implements which were on display. The scary thing is that many of the crude pieces are in use in Latin America today. There was even an Electric Chair from an Alabama prison.

After Lunch, I had a nap and Adriana went running. We finished the day with dinner with Dad and Linda in the Palazzo.

Thursday, August 19, 1999

Happy Birthday Tipper!

It was excellent ballooning today. Mike brought us to within 30 feet of the top of the tower in the Piazza del Campo. Great flying Mike!

We had a free day after ballooning. Annie and Mike went into Florence. Adriana and I went shopping and I bought a super thin Swatch watch.

Later, Annie, Adriana and I sat and drank beers in the Palazzo del Campo and had dinner at "La Mangia" again. Along the way there, we saw a pretty street artist, a real one, chalking Boticelli on the streets of Siena.

Friday, August 20, 1999

This has been a great ballooning trip. Once more weather was good for flying.

We had lunch at Ristorante "Montalbuccio." Alf had requested a real Italian meal, in a village, where no English was spoken except by us and where after the meal we would know that we had experienced the "true Italy." I'm not sure it was much different than the "true Italy" that we had already been experiencing, but we seemed to be the only English speakers in the place, and the atmosphere on the trellis covered patio was lovely.

We spent our last dinner back at the Osteria Le Logge, one of the first restaurants we had been to. The highlight of the evening was the "Beautiful Girl Lighter." We bought three of these wonderful lighters from a grateful street vendor.

Saturday, August 21, 1999

Today is our last day in Siena. We are leaving for Zurich in the early afternoon.

But, we have time for one more balloon flight!

Thank you, Dad, for a wonderful trip! I hand over the journal to you.

Next: Alf's Post Journal

Palio Links:

"Siena's Horse Race Is a War of Dirty Tricks"
- Italy Daily, August 11, 1999

"Speedy Snail Wins Siena Palio"
- Italy Daily, August 17, 1999

Il Palio - In English and Italian

Live Audio and Video Broadcast of the August 16, 1999 Palio

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