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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von M√ľnchhausen

The Palio

After a long absence, I have returned. There are several major items I'd like to cover, so I'll just jump right in with a series of posts.

First, of course, is the wedding. The weather was on the big day was gorgeous, Ms. Angel looked beautiful, and I was surrounded by friends and family. It was one of the happiest days of my life.

The honeymoon was incredible. We spent three weeks in Italy: five days in Venice, seven in Tuscany, and eight days in Rome. I suppose the most interesting thing we did was attending the Sienese Palio.

Il Palio (named for the banner given to the winner) is a bareback horse race around La Piazza del Campo that has been taking place every year since at least the 13th century. Each horse represents one of the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena: Tortoise, Wave, She-Wolf, Goose, Shell, Porcupine, Dragon, Owl, Snail, Panther, Eagle, Caterpillar, Unicorn, Ram, Giraffe, Forest and Tower. Some 50,000 people show up each year to watch the race. The prize is bragging rights for your neighborhood, preparations go on all year and celebrations last for weeks following the race. If you want to read more about the Palio and its history, check out "How I Became a Caterpillar" for another person's first-hand account. You can watch the August 16, 2007 Palio on YouTube here.

Ms. Angel and I left the villa early the morning of August 16th so we could stake out a spot in the Piazza. The festivities don't start until 5:00pm, but you have to show up early to stake out a good spot next to the track. It was a test of endurance just to stick to one spot in the hot Italian sun all day. My fair Ms. Angel was under a hat, an umbrella, and SPF 30, and still managed to get a bit sunburnt!

But we met a ton of nice people who were doing the same: a small family of Brits, a French project manager, a group of four older Aussie couples, a pair of young Aussie girls (there were a lot of Aussies in Italy!), as well as some Italian locals. A group of local boys from the Snail contrada wore their red-and-yellow scarves around their shoulders with a picture of their mascot on them. They had staked out a spot by placing an extra snail bandanna along the fence beside our spot. They were angrily reminding the British boy "Nostro posto!" as he was forced to encroach on their spot by the crowds.

The day wore on and the crowds thickened, and eventually, the ceremonies before the race began with the sound of trumpets and drums. There was a parade of costumed representatives from each of the contrade, representing their traditional professions. For example, the Snail contrade's residents from the southwestern corner of the city were traditionally tanners. They wore colored hose and tunics matching the colors of their contrade, and were accompanied by armored men at arms and flag-throwers. Following the contrada representatives was a statue of the Virgin Mary. The boys from the snail contrade feverishly shook their snail bandannas at it as it passed. I think it was for good luck.

This was very cool for the first hour, but I'll be honest: by the twelfth troupe of guys-in-hose...guy-in-armor...guys-with-flags, I was ready to watch a race. But before they took up their position at the traditional rope that marks the starting line, the horses were led around the track. They were lean and wild-looking animals, every one of them walking drunkenly and petulantly. Then they began to assemble to start the race, and fifty thousand people grew quiet. From where I was, I couldn't see too well, but they had several false starts, because one of the horses was so wild, it didn't want to line up. Three times they had to disperse the horses to try and get the unruly one in line. But before you knew it, on the third or fourth try, the race had begun, and the horses flew down the track at blurring speed. On the second lap, two horses flew bodily into the wall, tossing their jockeys like a rag doll. I hoped they were alright, but before I could wonder long, they had flown around the track again. And within two minutes, it was all over. The Unicorn had won. And I had waited about 10 hours in the hot sun for one really lousy picture.

The Palio was an amazing experience just for the pageantry and intensity of experiencing a part of Siena's living history. But the crowd was electric; and it was certainly the most exciting race I had ever seen, once you got past all the guys in tights.

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Comments on The Palio
  Comment from Blogger Lee at Wednesday, September 19, 2007 12:14:00 PM
Nice to have you back. You were right, it is a lousy photo!


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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.