Trailing the petite Italian woman, we navigated our way up the stairs, through narrow hallways and in to the fresco adorned rooms of the historic Palazzo Pubblico in Siena. Our guide demonstrated the art of gracefully walking in heels. A skill I’m convinced every Italian woman is born with. I guess when you are forced to master walking on ancient cobblestone streets and handling a vespa in not so sturdy shoes, for the sake of fashion, a few flights of stairs on slippery marble would be a walk in the park.
It was July 2nd and the day of the Palio, a horse race that has been held twice a year since the 16th century. The city of Siena, divided in to 17 districts known as Contradas, competes for a hand painted silk banner called the Palio. For this special occasion, the Sienese go all out donning their finest, colorful linen, stylish sunglasses, magnificent leather bags and belts, sockless loafers and of course, strappy heels. Their golden tanned skin only accentuates their fashionable attire.
Outside on the loggia to our delight were beautiful tables garnished with Tuscan bread, prosciutto, pecorino and olives. Spying the gelato bar our eyes grew wide with excitement. The delight hadn’t registered before we were handed a cool glass of Prosecco. Is this for real? My sweet bubble of La Dolce Vita suddenly burst when I noticed a glare coming from the direction of my feet. I’m mortified to realize that the afternoon sun was bouncing off my bright white, big, American sneakers. I may have the tanned legs, but the casual shorts and shoes are an embarrassment. I was dressed for pure comfort and function, doing nothing to dispel the stereotype of the sloppy American in sneakers. I did not represent well that day.
Having been to a few races, I was well prepared for the challenges that the day may bring. It is always hot, there are crowds of people and if you are not walking over the packed dirt track then you are climbing the extremely small, almost ladder like, steps of the bandstand, only to squeeze in to the tiniest of seats that by American standards would qualify for a child’s seat. It is the ONLY day I ever wear sneakers while visiting the country that is known for its fashion.
Finishing my first Prosecco, I relaxed and let my embarrassment go, counting the good fortune to be viewing the event from a place where royalty usually reside. We have observed the spirited race from many vantage points and each offered a different experience.
At the ground level, squeezed in the enclosed center track with thousands of spectators, you feel the soul of the Palio. From the beating of the drums, the enormity of the oxen pulling the cart that displays the Palio banner, to the rumble on the ground when the legion of mounted carabinieri charge by. Only from this position can you see the intense concentration on the flag bearer’s faces as they hurl their flags while competing for the judges. When the race begins and the horses blast 3 times around the track, the energy and excitement are unbelievable. Finally, pandemonium breaks out and the tears of both joy and sorrow flow passionately. Keep in mind that to obtain the optimum vantage point at the edge of the track, you must claim your spot hours before the procession begins and bear standing in the hot July sun for what feels like eternity. It may be free, but be prepared for a long day.
The second Palio was beheld from the luxury of bleacher seating known as palchi. This perspective allows for the best viewing of the historical procession of Contradas. Dressed in medieval costumes, each district displays their pageantry and skills. This is also good placement for obtaining beautiful photos and naturally, people watching. Added entertainment is witnessing the poor, fair tourists in the center track succumb to the heat and have to be carried off by stretcher. Although there is a hefty fee for obtaining bandstand seating, once you have found a seller, you have the convenience of arriving to your reserved seat at the last minute. Just make sure to have photos taken of your seat before committing to the purchase. One year we sat crouched on the top row with a medieval balcony resting on our shoulders for 3 hours.
Not wanting to support another balcony the next year, our ticket buyer made sure to have photos and written word insuring we would have plenty of head room. This time we had a larger group and a few first time guests. To our dismay, our ticket numbers led us to the very same seats we had the year before. Phone calls were made, ticket seller and originator arrive and tense conversation ensues. After much hand waving and drama, we were prepared to walk away from the deal and observe the race from a big screen at a nearby bar. We headed to our favorite lunch spot to ease our disappointment with some wine and a good meal. To our surprise, our trusted ticket broker arrived announcing that an arrangement had been made and he was ready to show us to our seats. As we enter the historical building with looks of question and astonishment, we are assured that for the sake of the reputation of Siena and the Contrada, we will be taken care of with better seating. The city and the neighborhood surpassed their promise and delivered us to luxury. This is how we came to view the Palio from the Palazzo Pubblico, surrounded by elegance, sipping Prosecco and enjoying all the gelato we desired while wearing our big, white, casual, sneakers. A day we will never forget.