Since I last wrote things in Siena have been nuts, of course all induced by the famous Palio that takes places twice a year. A tradition stemming from medieval times, the Palio di Siena consists of a grueling horse race around the Piazza del Campo where 10 of the 17 contradas (neighbourhoods) take part. The only comparison I can give to those who haven’t witnessed the Palio would be to like winning the Stanley Cup (sorry Toronto, I know it’s very hard to imagine). The people of Siena dress up in traditional clothing and spend countless night’s prepping and celebrating the coming event.
Having been stopped multiple times in the street myself, the various parades of horses, jockeys, and other contrada members halt traffic in any direction and will go at any length (including violently throwing children out of the way, I’m fully serious) to keep their front runners free of any interceptions. On Friday I was stopped around the piazza by this parade which included a bull-drawn carriage that was bringing up the rear of the important contrada members of the city as well as the banner in which the winning contrada brings home.
Pre-Palio, I knew I was going to be standing for a long time, so the brunch I made had to be filling and boy was it ever! Trying out a new recipe, I had a Ricotta stuffed French toast covered in local peaches. Mmm! I have to say that it was amazing; definitely a keeper! It was also so simple to make, so I’ll lay it down for you right now and feel free to try it out yourself, if you’re lucky and ask reallllyyy nicely maybe I’ll make it again once I’m home. So the recipe calls for four pieces of toast, ricotta cheese, honey, vanilla extract, 2 eggs, and milk. Very basic, very easy and VERY good.
Firstly, mix the ricotta with honey and vanilla extract in a small bowl (the recipe says ½ cup ricotta, 2 tablespoons honey, 1 teaspoon vanilla for two servings). In a larger bowl, mix the two eggs and a few tablespoons of milk (this will be the mixture to dunk the bread in). After spreading two pieces of bread with the ricotta mixture, put another piece of bread on top like a sandwich and dunk the egg mixture for a couple minutes and then flip. Once the bread is properly soaked, throw it on the frying pan with a bit of margarine and cook for about 5 minutes on one side and 3 on the other. And voila! The peaches made the perfect addition to the slightly sweet and rich French toast, their juiciness was dead-on. Here’s how mine looked!
Ok, so now to the Palio. The Palio in and of itself takes hours of preparation, even for those keen enough to stand in the piazza for hours ahead of time to get a good spot. Having been standing in the piazza for two and a half hours before the riders even came out, we were ready for a good race! Tens of thousands of people made it out to watch the most longstanding medieval tradition in the world.
Although the crowd in the piazza wasn’t anywhere near as rowdy as we had been anticipating, the race itself was brutal. To begin, the piazza is shaped half by a semi-circle and a more or less straight line closing in the side in front of the Campo. As soon as the race started and the horses bolted across the start line, the first sharp turn of the race got everyone’s adrenaline pumping. The horse took the corner too quickly and whose knees started to buckle made the jockey fly through the air where within hundredths of a second was trampled by the remaining horses and riders. The horse managed to get back up and continue the race (yes, without the rider – this is important, the horse is the winner not the jockey) and luckily the jockey made it to his feet and the nurses took him off the course. Within another few seconds along the second sharp corner of the first lap, right next to us, another jockey was launched from his horse and into the crowd. To be blunt, this was all a huge shock! I’m used to some degree of violence in sports, having played some myself, but this brought things to a whole new level. The race continued for the next two laps without any other grave injuries and resulted in a phenomenal win by Civetta, the little owl contrada. After taking all this in, we rushed to the Duomo where the winning contrada waves their flags and thank the Madonna for blessing them with the victory. Along with their contrada’s songs, the banner is presented to the contrada and the victory parties start!
Tears were flowing, cheers were being chanted, and excitement was everywhere! It’s amazing how such a tradition has continued on to be so well-respected and enjoyed by all. It’s beyond words how to describe the atmosphere at the Palio di Siena, but giving you the lowdown was the best I could do. Even having taken part in other traditional activities from Latvian traditions, this was truly a different kind of culture shock.
After such an exciting day Saturday, Sunday called for a beach day! Laying in the sand all day and catching up on the sleep that was seriously lacked from having stayed out at night to celebrate with the contradas was desperately needed.
It’s kind of nice to know that tomorrow we will have a little more of a normal schedule with classes and papers to write before the end of semester, if only I could hand this in.