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?

TRAIN

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.

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3 thoughts on “Misleading & Mistaken in Siena

  1. I’ve been to Siena several times but never to the Palio. I’m glad they are being careful with the slick conditions…too many accidents in the past and always sad to hear of a horse needing to be put down.But I do love the tradition, the colorful contrade’s and the festivity of it.

  2. I went to the second palio in 2002 and was more interested in the reaction from the crowd afterward than the actual race. I stood for four hours for about 60 seconds of action — all of which I had to watch on a TV in a bar. However, the uncontrollable weeping of grown men whose quartiere didn’t win and the parading the jockey — on his horse — through the narrow alleys was worth the wait. I’m hearing more and more that the horses are being mistreated. I hope it’s not true but so many Sienese are into this tradition, it would take a lot for them to change it.

    John Henderson, Rome
    Dog-Eared Passport: http://www.johnhendersontravel.com
    @JohnHendeRome

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