Misleading & Mistaken in Siena

Not Just Another Today is August 16th, the day of the Palio dell’Assunta in Siena. If you’re not sure che cavolo (literally: what the cabbage, used like what the heck) I’m talking about, click here and here and here to read up on the Palio.

Although this summer has been the hottest summer in Tuscany in 130 years or something (and no, I don’t have air conditioning), the weather these last few days has taken a real turn for the brutto (ugly). It’s been rainy, kinda cold. Thunder and lighting. I actually had to wear a sweater the other night for the first time in months.

What does this have to do with anything?

As you know, the Palio is run in Siena’s stunning Piazza del Campo, on a track made of tufo sand. The track is laid in the piazza a week or so before the race so that the cavalli (horses) and fantini (jockeys) can do their prove (trial runs). This is all well and good, but when it rains, the track gets wet and then becomes too dangerous to use.

Yesterday it rained enough that the Prova Generale (the trial run on the night before the Palio) was cancelled. Today, we all waited patiently to hear if the Palio itself would be postponed (never cancelled) because of the track conditions.

So we waited and waited for the official sign to come mid-afternoon today.

What were we waiting for?

A solid-colour bandiera (flag) to be hung out one of the windows of the Palazzo Comunale (City Hall, probably my favourite building on earth) to signal that the race would be put off (this is important) until the conditions became suitable again. If the Palio was going to go on, there would be no special flag flown, just the ones of the 10 contradas that were running the race, which have been flying for days.

Around 2pm today, this is what we saw:

Bandiera Verde, credit Tabata Psillakis

Bandiera Verde, credit Tabata Psillakis

, it’s green.

In the rest of the world, green means go. In Siena, apparently, it means no-go.

Any of the other times I’ve been here for the Palio, it’s been run as per normal and never postponed, so I’d never encountered the “green flag of no” before today. But it really shouldn’t surprise me.

You see, when I first started coming to Siena, I noticed quite a few other things here that weren’t quite what common logic would like them to be.

Take navigating the city streets, for example. Often you have to go up a hill just to go back to your destination that’s actually down. You have to go left to finally end up right. You have to go south to finish north, sometimes east to finish west. Missing a turn and figuring, “I’ll just take the next cross street” doesn’t help you, because the idea of a “cross street” doesn’t exist and the next turn you take has you doubling back and ending up anywhere but where you want to be. I’ll bet on it.

Don’t just take my word for it though, please follow these signs that have you going in two different directions to get to the Campo:

Finding your way...

Finding your way…

And although this has since been changed, would anyone like to take a guess at what the city bus company here was called when I first set foot in Siena?


Davvero. Really. I’m not joking. And to make matters worse, the full legal name of the company was TRAIN S.P.A, so you really had no idea what you were getting!

The TRAIN bus in Siena.

Beautiful, isn’t it? So typically Italian, this hodgepodge of things that are very fuorvianti (misleading).

And when they finally get to running the Palio once the track dries up, do you know which is the worst place to finish in? In the rest of the world, out of 10 horses, we’d probably say the worst place to finish was 10th. In Siena, out of 10 places, the worst place to finish is second. Because you were so close; you almost could have come first.

Except you didn’t.

Italian Life Olympics – Event #2

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"If you missed my first post on Italian Life Olympics, click here to catch up.

So, back to event #2: crossing the street in Italy.

No, no! It’s no joke. In order to correctly perform this task in busy, crowded, car-congested cities like Roma or Napoli, there’s a certain level of skill required or else –


Some Mario Andretti wannabe will remorselessly metterti sotto (run you over) in their little Fiat 500 without a backward glance while you’re left, stuck to the pavement, newly resembling a human pizza. Fiat 500

Wishing earnestly to avoid this fate, you keep your wits about you and gear up for the event. (Some people choose to say a hearty goodbye to their loved ones beforehand – you never know!).


“Today I’m crossing the street.” “Call when you get to the other side.”

You walk to the curb of the street you wish to cross and size up the amount of traffic (probably molto) that’s crossing your path. You pay no attention (this is important) to what’s going on with the semafori (traffic lights) or the strisce (crosswalks), because the drivers don’t either. You take in the speed, the size of the vehicles and any other obstructions in the area. You toe up to the edge.

Then you turn your head towards oncoming traffic and catch the eye of a driver in the lane closest to you. Now, they’re not really slowing down yet, but you know this is your chance. You maintain eye contact with the driver, steel yourself for the exertion ahead, step off the curb and you…

Walk into traffic.

Chin up, head high, like you own the street. And you keep walking.

You catch the eye of other  drivers as they approach you, and something miraculous happens. Sensing that you’re actually serious about traversing their path, and that their sewing-machine engines are no match for you, they’ll take in your confident stride and acquiesce. Momentarily.

And like Moses parted the Red Sea, the traffic will part, if only briefly, to allow your safe passage to the other side.

But don’t dawdle, and per l‘amor del cielo (for goodness’ sake), don’t run. You’ve gotta look like you’re in control or else someone’s foot might get a little heavy at your display of weakness and – POM! The human pizza fate is once again yours.


All of this fuss can be avoided if you can cross in the company of a nun or priest. Italian drivers will sooner crash than harm someone in a habit!


My First Palio

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"July 2, 2010.

Imagine the Piazza del Campo, majestic and beautiful, brimming with a crowd louder and more invested in what’s about to happen than any crowd you’ve ever seen. Tens of thousands strong, they’re singing, yelling, hoping and praying. They’re wearing their contrada’s fazzoletto tied in the front and hanging over their shoulders to show their allegiance. For the Senese, life revolves around the contrada and this event. Heck, even my life has been affected by the Palio.

So imagine standing in the middle of that crowd, willingly trapped in the centre of the piazza, in the late afternoon heat. You don’t quite understand all of what’s taking place, but you’re happy to just be part of all the Medieval pomp and circumstance.

The crowd.

The crowd.

That was me at my first Palio.

Flag-throwing alfieri

Flag-throwing alfieri

Wig-wearing, costumed tamburini (drummers) and alfieri (flag-throwers) promenade around the piazza for the Corteo Storico. The rat-a-tat-tatting of the drums and whooshing of the flags can be heard even above the excited chatter of the crowd. Then, before you know it, there are 10 horses, each bearing contrada colours, being ridden bareback by 10 brave jockeys out the large wooden doors of the Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall) to a thunderous applause. Numbers are drawn and announced over a loudspeaker. The starting positions are set.



Then, into the pen they go. The jockeys, atop their circling horses, whisper last-minute threats, pledges and bribes to one another, all in hopes of swaying the race’s outcome. Race? No, it’s not just a race. There’s blood, honour, tradition and a year’s worth of bragging rights on the line.

Finally, the jockeys allow their horses to line up calmly, and a hush comes over the crowd. And just when you’re least expecting it, the number 10 horse, from behind, charges ahead and starts them running.

The pack of horses sprints around the piazza, the thunder of their 40 hooves barely audible over the cheering and jeering of the crowd. I’m cheering for Drago, the dragon contrada. A few seconds after the start, it’s evident Drago is not doing well.

I turn my body to follow the pack of horses around the piazza, trying to my best to snap pictures all the way. With only one lap to go, it looks like the Selva (forest) contrada might win.



Selvaaaaaaaa!” Anyone wearing Selva colours is now yelling with every fiber of their being, imploring their expended energy to somehow make its way into the legs of their horse and propel it across the finish line. First.

As the pack passes for its third lap, I’m momentarily confused as crazed contradaioli start jumping into the track and chasing, yes chasing the pack of horses, one or two of which are now rider-less, after having lost their jockeys on one of the treacherous San Martino curves. Are they crazy?

When it’s Selva that crosses the finish line first, the whole scene degenerates into the most chaos I have ever witnessed.

People spill everywhere. There’s not a stitch of order to anything.

Horses are snorting and kicking and trying to evade being stopped. Grown men shed tears, both of happiness and anger. A couple ambitious Selva members climb through the crowds and retrieve their coveted Palio banner. The Selva jockey, I see through the throngs of people, is hoisted onto the shoulders of two Selva members and is paraded, with the winning horse, to the Duomo.

And as each contrada leads its horse out of the piazza, it’s all over.

all over