The Palio di Siena: A Survivor’s Guide

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During the race, jockeys take their lives into their hands. The race involves three clockwise laps around one-third-of-a-mile track and there are tight turns. There have been dozens of serious injuries; videos of spills are all over YouTube. Horses are more vulnerable. More than 50 have died in these races since 1970; animal rights protesters have staged repeated protests. In response, Palio administrators have increased the padding on some turns and instituted other safety controls. Critics say these measures are not enough.

The parade ended and a booming cannon-like shot scattered every bird within two miles. The crowd grew quiet as the horses and their riders entered the piazza. Nine of the 10 racers took up their assigned positions at the starting rope. The 10th rider decided when the race started, when he made a go for it.

While this was happening, the riders conversed, swapped taunts and offered bribes. Impatient horses jostled and reared off the crowded line and were ridden back. The 10th horse made multiple exploratory false starts. This to-ing and fro-ing took more than 10 minutes.

And then they were off. The race was a clattering blur, whipping around us. It took less than 90 seconds but seemed even shorter. Several riders fell from their horses but none were seriously injured.

The winner was La Contrada dell’Onda (the Wave), its colors aquamarine. It was this contrada’s first win since 2013 and its jockey, Carlo Sanna, known as Brigante, was an instant hero, hoisted upon shoulders.

He and his horse, the 9-year-old Porto Alabe, were whisked off to receive the winning banner and be blessed at the Siena Cathedral, the Duomo. This event was not hard to find. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people poured through the streets to make their way there, as the carabinieri kept close watch.

Out came the pacifiers and baby bottles. The winners wept with happiness. Meals commenced at huge tables set up in the streets. The festivities ran all night, which frankly they’d done for the four days leading up to the race, sometimes keeping us awake in our hotel room.

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That night we ate pizza margherita, one of Valentina’s Palio-night traditions, at an outdoor table at one of the restaurants that line the piazza. (Tables are hard to come by on Palio night. To watch Valentina secure one in the front row is to witness charm, fortitude and kung fu Italian-language skills in action.) We sat, caught our breaths, drank rehydrating beer over post-Instagram photographs. What else is vacation for?

The pizza was delicious — not so delicious that I’ll forget to remind you that August is also the time to find plentiful and inexpensive white truffles in Siena. Some restaurants have entire wings of their menus devoted to their glory. Dishes come buried beneath them, the way the poutine in Montreal comes covered with cheese curds. Again, I wanted to cry.

I’d heard that truffle dogs could be rented for an afternoon in Siena. I asked my hotel’s concierge about this. He told me yes, they’re 600 euros. I said, “That’s a lot of euros.” He replied: “Do you know what a truffle dog’s time is worth?”

This outdoor loony bin is one I will happily be committed to.

Dwight Garner is a book critic for The Times.


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