Surprise 2: Siena and a Big Race

Italy, Engagement, Palio

Isn’t she a beaut?!

I’m sorry for the unannounced post hiatus; Matt and I had to make an unexpected trip back to the US. We are back in Europe now and I have not forgotten that I still need to share the rest of Italy with my loyal readers. So, here goes…

We awoke in Florence on the third day of our trip with our bags packed and ready to travel to the next destination. Where we were going and how we were getting there was still a secret, but I’d soon be finding out. Matt had a chat with the hotel, who in turn had a chat in Italian with our cab driver, and then we were quickly off to an unknown destination.

About fifteen minutes later, we pulled into a parking lot next the highway and as we turned the corner, I figured out what Matt had in store. Waiting for us at the end of the lot was a black 1961 Mercedes 190SL and it was a beauty! Matt seemed super proud of himself for keeping me in the dark and also pretty excited to get behind the wheel. I was in shock and feeling pretty pumped at the prospect of us cruising around Chianti country in this classic car.

Palio, Italy, Engagement

Siena is a gorgeous Italian city – it’s worth seeing even without a horse race!

Before we left, Matt unveiled a couple further surprises. First, he gave me a beautiful riding scarf he’d picked up months ago when he started planning this trip. He really thought ahead on that one! We wrapped me up like Grace Kelly so I could enjoy having the top down – I felt quite fabulous. 😉 Then, Matt revealed the next destination – Siena for the Palio horse race! Being the horse racing enthusiast that he is, and considering that we try to go to popular horse races when the opportunities present themselves (Matt’s bucket list you could say), I wasn’t totally surprised about this one. We’d talked about how cool it would be to go to this race and I was happy he’d be able to cross it off of his bucket list.

Italy, Palio, Engagement

Europe’s oldest, still-operating bank.

Our trip to Siena was certainly lovely. The GPS kept instructing us to use the highway for the quickest route, however we decided to veer off-course and travel through the countryside for the scenic beauty. Our arrival in the city was also something I’ll never forget! We wound our way through the narrow streets to the top of the city only to find that just like most other old European towns, there were driving restrictions in the historic section of the city. We called the hotel, who sent us their bellhop…on foot! He walked us through the off-limit streets and to a busy square in front of our hotel. As soon as we entered the square, groups of people crowded around the car and started taking pictures! Matt and I couldn’t stop laughing – I felt like a celebrity while all of the tourists admired the car and wondered who we were. Unfortunately, though, the drive had been a little warm, so the sweat stain on my back made me feel a bit less glamorous.

We stayed at a beautiful hotel in the heart of the city called The Grand Hotel Continental. Our view from the window of our room was of Europe’s oldest, still-operating bank in the square across the street. We spent our first day walking around, exploring the city, and experiencing the mayhem surrounding the historic event. See, the Palio di Siena is a horse race that dates back to medieval times – the first Palio took place in 1656. When bullfighting was outlawed in 1590, the contrade (or districts) began organizing races in the Piazza del Campo, which is the main square in the center of the city. The race has since been held twice a year, every year, on July 2 and August 16 (though, the August 16 date was regularly added in 1701). There are currently 17 contrade within the city (dating back there were many more), but only 10 race. How it works: the 7 contrade that did not race the year before are automatically entered and then 3 are chosen at random to fill out the 10 spots. The race is still held in the Piazza del Campo and is 3 laps. I’ll explain in more detail when I get to the race itself, but in the meantime, you can refer to the beginning of Quantum of Solace– at the beginning of the most recent James Bond movie, Daniel Craig pops up into the square while the Palio is running.

Italy, Palio, Engagement

Crowds of people lined the streets – you can see here that we are walking with the Selva crowd, because they have the orange and green scarves on.

As for the honor of the Palio, we learned quite a bit from a personal tour guide that was allocated to us the day before the race. She took us all around Siena detailing the historic sites and explaining just how competitive the districts are. For example, she explained that once you are born into a contrade, you are part of that contrade for life. You are baptised twice: once by the city of Siena and another time in a private fountain next to your contrade’s church. Each contrade has their own mascot. Our tour guide was from the Selva contrade, which means “forest,” represented by the colors green and orange, and whose mascot is the rhino. Since Selva was racing that week, we couldn’t get in to see their museum, so she took us to another district called Torre, meaning “tower,” and represented by an elephant with a tower on its back. There is so much pride in each district that fights have been known to break out and if you marry someone from another contrade, a prenuptial agreement – regarding the contrade the children will be born and baptized to – is standard.

Italy, Palio, Engagement

In my green dress and Selva scarf the night before the Palio.

Thanks to the agency Matt booked us through, not only did we learn so much about the race from our tour guide, but we also got to attend the pre-race dinner in the Selva district the night before. Luckily, I’d packed a green dress, which matched Selva perfectly! The dinner was held in their district area, right next to the Duomo. We sat at a table with a few other American tourists and our tour guide. There were hundreds of people in attendance celebrating the hopeful victory of the Selva district; speeches were given throughout the night and we stood many times to wave our flag and sing with the rest of the contrade. It was hands-down one of the coolest things I’ve ever been a part of. The spirit and pride of each contrade makes any loyalty to a college or professional sports team feel inadequate. We’re talking centuries of history, competition, and glory here.

That’s just the start of it all, though. We still had a trial race to see, an unexpected personal visit with Selva’s horse, and a church blessing before the big race. More to come tomorrow!

Italy, Palio, Engagement

Incredible, huh?! At the pre-race dinner.

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