Saturday, July 2, 2011

Jack, Rocky, and the Palio

I have to skip ahead a few days to tell the story of Thursday night. My last blog described the feast in Orvieto. Since then, we have traveled to Tuscany to enjoy wine and castles in Chianti. Our timing was again fortuitous, as the big bi-annual horserace in Siena is Saturday July 2. We went to Siena on Thursday.

Siena is an old medieval city, rival to Florance and the other center of power in Tuscany. It was conquered by Florance before the Renaissance, and therefore maintains its late medieval character. The city is divided into seventeen neighborhoods, or contrade, that still engender fierce loyalty and rivalry. The rivalry is played out during the Palio, when representatives from each contrade ride bareback on a short, narrow track around the Piazza del Campo, the main city square.

Since we were two days away from the Palio, the whole town simmered with barely contained enthusiasm and expectation. We took our room in an old tower and set out to explore. Immediately we came upon a group of young, lubricated rowdies wearing their contrade colors on scarfs and serenading an open window above. Flags bearing the emblem of each contrade, the brave porcupine, the faithful caterpillar, the mighty dragon, (some contrade symbols were more fearsome than others)  adorned every window and lamp post.  As we moved towards the Campo, we noted how many young people were drinking wine and beer on the street, a sight we had not seen outside of street-side bars.  In each neighborhood we passed a gathering point where the men and women were, for lack of a better word, tailgating, usually separtely, about a block apart.  In the huge piazza, people wearing all the colors of the city milled about the makeshift race track, eating gelato and relaxing.

We ventured up steep roads and steps to the Duomo on the city's highest point. After viewing the ornate inlaided marble floors and 11th century frescos in the crypt, we climbed a narrow stone spiral staircase to the top of the wall of the unfinished wing. There the city and surrounding hills and vineyards spread out before us. The bells in one section of town began to ring, and voices drifted up to us on the wind. The voices increased and unified into a fight song. Strong male singing moved unseen through the streets below, reciting a powerful song. The sound moved towards the Campo, and soon a large group emerged into the piazza, their singing increasing as more and more people poured from the side street. At the end of the refrain, they broke into a cheer and clapping rhythem. As they went back into song, bells sounded in another part of the city, and soon a song rose up from new streets, moving towards the piazza. As we watched spellbound, the people of each contrade moved from their parties to gather in the piazza. We went down to join the action, and found the piazza packed with singing men and chanting children.

We grabbed a bottle of Barberani wine from our room and some meat, cheese, tomato, and bread from a market. We found some steps on a main walking thoroughfare and watched the world go by. The younger men carried bottles of wine and beers, singing and chanting, while the older men and women were dressed to the nines. After dinner, we discovered that splitting a bottle of wine evenly left Anna a bit more lubricated than me, so I needed to catch up. We headed toward the piazza Campo and found a bar with a little action. I spied Southern Comfort on the shelf and requested it with a lime. At first, the guy had no idea what I was talking about, but after some pointing, and no little amusment on his part, he took down the unopened bottle. I'm pretty sure he had never served SoCo before, but he ably splashed it over some rocks and squeezed in a few lemons, limes being unavailable. I downed the "shot" quickly and ordered a red wine, for which he chose an oddly sicky sweet dessert wine. We returned to the Campo where an orchestra formed up to play a free concert. We danced in the square a while and then, needing a seat to relieve our hill-beaten feet, we returned to the bar. As I was unable to drink my wine, and since we wanted a seat on their balcony, I asked the bartender, who was selling just as much coffee and gelato as booze, what he would have. He quickly whipped me up a Jack and coke with a twist of lemon and we took it on the deserted balcony overlooking the piazza. Seats that I imagine go for hundreds for the race were empty to watch the concert. The band struck up the theme song for Rocky and we watched the people passing below. The band moved into "I will follow him" from the movie "sister act" and then reprised Rocky. Thoroughly satisfied, we headed to the hotel. Just outside our door, we heard someone singing and playing the blues on guitar. I ran up to grab a harmonica, but the music stopped before I returned. Undaunted, I played the blues outside the open window. From inside, someone began to snap in time to my rhythem. He/she did not join in except for the snapping, but I played a nice, long solo. No response was given, and feeling content, we went to bed.

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