So you drive to Siena, and head at a serious clip toward the main piazza, because as far as you know you have maybe a 3% chance of getting a ticket to their "dress rehearsal" for the most famous bareback horse race in the world. You don't really know what that means, but . . . hell: "When in Rome."
You're not in Rome, though. After much run-walking over cobblestones, you're here:
After a good pause for a refreshing beverage (which helps you recover from the embarrassment over having covert-sprinted amongst all the laid-back Italians) you set about trying to figure out how to get a ticket. Your friend, who speak much better Italian than you do, works it out. E la:
So, you've got good seats. The seating is right beside the course, which runs the entire circumference of the (very large) piazza, and has been covered with tightly packed earth specifically for the event. I mean to say: You are RIGHT THERE. It's hard to believe someone's actually going to bring a semi-wild animal that close to you on purpose. It's also difficult to believe that you needed to rush so, because the piazza still looks like this:
But, you know, you go with it because your friend speaks better Italian than you, and has been to this event before, and because just maybe this will be a memory of the sort that never goes anywhere it can't be remembered again. It's good you kept these things in mind, because within ten minutes, the piazza goes from looking like the above to this:
There is much accepted pomp and circumstance prior to the main event. The city, you see, is divided into various neighborhoods that are represented by animals. The tortoise, the porpoise, the little owl, etc. These contradi are the participants in the race, and whoever wins the real race (the next day) gets bragging privileges for the rest of the year. So groups gather, songs are sung, children are corraled into choral groups and everyone has a boisterously good time. It's hard to imagine it getting more intense for the real thing, but it surely must. Juxtoposed beside that sort of contemporary hootenanny is medieval ceremony, such as a procession of the city emblem:
The real deal. See those guys in the back? Plate mail and wicked pikes. Wicked pikes, man. Further traditions include really skilled flag-twirling/dancing and processions of drummers, etc. The last little pre-show bit is the procession of what I assume represent the city's cavalry. These fellows march in, their horses high-stepping beautifully, swords raised:
Then you know what they do, after completing a lap? They point their swords forward and haul ass for a lap! In formation! It's seriously amazing. If I saw these guys bearing down on me, forget it. Even if I had a cannon or two. I'm going home and watching it on the news. Good luck, everyone else. Of course, after that, some clean up is necessary.
Dudes with brooms. If that isn't old school, I just don't know what is. After all these things rad, they get set for the race itself, including the latest technology. Ropes, for example. Very large ropes.
Which are spring-loaded. You know, to contain the semi-wild horses and their death-hungry riders. It's like some terrible idea of a horse race dreamed up by a Dungeons & Dragons (TM) -obsessed fourteen-year-old...
Yes, I am that fourteen-year-old.
Anyway, the horses arrive one by one, bearing the crests of their particular contrado. We got to sit right in the section where the horses begin, between the two ropes. It is due to this buona fortuna that I present to you contrado Lupa:
Now the really, really good stuff starts. It takes forever for the horses to get in line. I thought this was simply because, well, they're semi-wild horses. Ah, no. It turns out that it has something to do with signals the riders are getting from the officials/palio-captains of their contrado. Those people are standing -- as they have done for hundreds of years -- on a double footbridge that spans an alley between two buildings of the piazza. They are signaling their rider to be slow, or agitate his horse, or freaking kick the guy beside him. It's like baseball, with all the hand signals. It's part of the game, but the part that goes largely unacknowledged. This is, in fact, a primary reason for having a rehearsal for the event! The tortoise is the last contrado to enter the corral, and he sits it out for a long time, his rider's face as placid as the Buddha's, while the other horses and their riders kick and shout and otherwise try to hold it together.
You'll have to forgive me, because it started even faster than I could have imagined, so I don't have the beginning. I also don't have the end, because as soon as it was over people started climbing off the stands behind me to congratulate the winner and see if the guy who fell off his horse had died. (He didn't.) But, well, the final event of the thing is, simply put, this: