I arrived in Siena on August 18, two days after the second and final Palio race of the summer. Torre (Tower) contrada had won. Had I arrived in time for the centuries-old, barebacked, contrada-versus-contrada horse race, the city would have been mobbed with thousands partaking in race festivities. A couple days later and the masses gone, the city showed a quieter (or perhaps a recuperative) side with few tourists and only the Palio champs (still) rejoicing through the streets.
Arriving in the wake of the excitement, I was surprised to encounter a parade marching around the Piazza del Campo with participants waving large flags as I made my way to my ‘mini-residence’ down Via del Porrione. After checking in I headed back out to explore. More and more people kept flooding the piazza. It took me a minute or two to realize that the smug, puff-chested crowd was mostly male.
Following the crowd from the piazza down Via di Sallicotto I was able to take a peek at the prize – the Palio (banner) – in the Torre neighborhood church. As I entered the church I almost felt I was trespassing in observing this highly-regarded, highly-charged, and bragging-right-filled tradition. But it was too awesome a thing to miss out on. Plus, I told myself, my hostel was within the Torre boundaries so I was practically family. I snapped some photos and left the church.
Further down, filling the narrow street, were lengths of tables donned with tablecloths and vibrant blue sparkling water bottles. The seats were filled with the jubilant and proud. The neighborhood I used to live in as a kid would have a block party at least once a summer but the preparation, effort, and excitement paled in comparison. When I returned to my room for the night I could still hear firecrackers and the occasional singing through my window.
The following evening (three days after the race) I was dining outside at a restaurant on the Piazza del Campo when I began to hear a drumming in the distance. The beats continued to get louder and louder. Finally, from the alleyway-sized street to my left emerged another procession of Torre residents. This group was even larger than the one I had seen the evening before. The Palio had been brought out and was worshiped for another night. Then again, who could blame them – Torre hadn’t won in 44 years.
I had thought the stories I had heard about the Palio di Siena and the pride of winning to be exaggerated. From what I had witnessed in just 24 hours of being in town proved the stories to be true. To have been able to be a spectator of this slice of Sienese life, when the tourists were few and it was just for themselves, has always made the trip that much more entrenched in my travel psyche.