After only 48 hours in our new home city of Rome, time that included some mountain biking (or lost mtn. biking that included battles with giant throne bushes), jet lag and getting familiar with our new hood. We had been invited by one of Heidi's colleagues to take an overnight jaunt to the city of Siena. The plan was to see an event called the Palio, do some wine tasting and watch the Italia vs. Germania quarterfinal Eurocup match. Keeping to our "never say No" mentality we decided to forego our multiple trips to IKEA and enjoy a weekend of adventure. To be perfectly honest I had no idea we were headed to the region of Tuscany until we arrived. If you know anything about wine, unlike myself, than you know that there are a few good wines made in this region of Italy. Now, the wine tasting made sense. The Palio I had heard of and thought at some point during our time in Italy I would see it. So I was excited to get an invite to see it so soon. The soccer match was a bonus. Italians and soccer go hand in hand, to see the vibe around a big match would be a perfect way to see how the culture reacts to sport. We packed a bag and off we went to Tuscany.
Walking up the city center of Siena you immediately feel the history of this walled city. The cathedrals and piazza towers stare down on you like they have on the centuries of visitors before you who have come to witness the Palio. I guess we really have to get over the fact that everything is old and everything is picture worthy because you just feel like you should stop and gape at every architectural wonder, street, and statue. There's time. It's not going anywhere.
The Palio is a banner with a painting on it that the winning neighborhood or contrada receives if their horse (jockey or not) crosses the finish line first. Not quite that simple though. For close to 700 years this event has taken place in the same spot in Siena. Piazza del Campo. The city's main piazza is a circular area in the center of town where the horse race takes place and is also home to the majority of the city's restaurants.
Heidi's colleague Bob, who had invited us to join in the fun, had previously been invited to watch the race in style in an apartment overlooking the piazza. Not having the same invite, Heidi and I made our way into the center of the piazza to watch the race and planned to meet Bob afterward to watch the Italia vs. Germania match. Walking into the center of the action was quite impressive. It's hard to put words to an event that has taken place since the 1400's. Later that evening as I watched over this ordeal, a catholic priest and I where talking about how to describe the feelings and "vibe" of such an event. He of course put it best by saying that in his world of religion when they don't have the words that work to describe an event, feeling, etc. they use ritual. It was a perfect explanation. This was a 700 year old ritual that was full of life, death, and shenanigans.
Here's the deal about the Palio. There are no rules. Anywhere, about any thing, at any time. It's a game of lies. For an entire year each contrada has a boss with lieutenets who are plotting any way possible to win the Palio. Jockeys can be considered heros, villains, and cheats. After the starting order is announced, and just minutes before the race, millions of euros exchange hands between each of the boss' and jockeys are deciding if their racing to win, lose, help another hood win, or to make sure a rival loses. This can consist of any combination of hitting another jockey, pulling him from his horse, hitting a horse, ANYTHING goes. Jockeys and horses are killed during this race. The jockeys are willing to die to bring honor to the contrada.
With just a couple minutes to spare before the center of the piazza was to close we got a call from Bob. We had been invited up to the apartment to watch the race. Woo hoo! We pushed and pulled our way through a few thousand people to the exit of the piazza and made it as the gates were getting ready to close. Once in the apartment we thanked the man who had rented the space for the day and the family he had rented it from. It was incredible. These people were so kind to let us join them on this special day. It wasn't soon after our arrival that the waiters with white jackets started offering us cool white wine on silver trays. Where are we?! The apartment had four or five windows overlooking the Piazza del Campo and was situated right at the start/finsh line of the race. We heard the cheers of the crowd as they announced the stating lineup and then watched as the contrada boss' made their deals. After a few failed attempts to start the race due to rival team fighting each other by pushing horses and jockeys out of the way the final explosion fired and the race was on. Supposedly the start can go on for hours if the devious plans that have been set in place are not working.
After only 90 seconds the race is over. 90 seconds of elation that I would put up against any other sporting event I've seen. The piazza suddenly fills with people who are screaming and cheering for the winning contrada and their allies. They rush their way to finish line where the Palio is displayed. Form there the mob carries the banner to their local church where the all night celebration starts with the blessings for the jockey and horse. The contrada itself wins no money, only the Palio and honor. The jockeys are the only people to receive the loot and the winning jockey is slowly carried off as any hero would.
After the chanting crowd exited the piazza the area was quickly cleaned and it was hard to think that tens of thousands of people had just an hour or so beforehand witnessed a Palio. The piazza was suddenly turned into a giant outside restaurant where people started filling back in for their late night summer dinners. The surrounding buildings where all lined with hand lit candles and the scene in Siena was once again astounding.
Our gracious hosts asked us to stay for dinner and the soccer match. We couldn't say no. Plate after plate of food came out onto the dining room table and we gorged on the local tastes of Siena. Our host brought out his favorite local chiante and we watched an exciting but defeating soccer match until the early morning hours. The drive back to our apartment was full of discussion about how lucky we were to be in the country four days and have an experience so rich in Italian culture. If this was what life was going to be like we could get used to it. Once in bed and thinking the night was too still that I wished to have I-70 back in my front yard. Right. But the jet lag did come to haunt me that night but the next morning would again bring a day to remember.
After a pretty restless night the local church bells started chiming and it was time to rise and shine to see another part of Tuscany. The wineries. First stop was the monastery just below our village. Abbazia di Monte Oliveto Maggiore. The reports were that the wine wasn't the best but it was close and might offer some good sightseeing. The reports were true. I believe monks have other duties to keep themselves busy. Wine might not be their most important. The monastery was in a beautiful wooded area over looking the many different colored pastures of the region. Within the monastery they have a giant collection of frescoes dating back to the 1300's. While these were not my taste in art it was again very nostalgic knowing how much history was surrounding you. There are a ton of religious buildings in Italy and I don't plan on seeing them all but the architecture is amazing and always worth a few good photos.
Our next stop was over to the Pometti Vineyard/Winery just a few km's away. It was Sunday and not a lot of things get done but Bob had managed to get a us a tour of this smaller local winery. We arrived and were quickly met by the owner and his dog Gemma. His name escapes me but he was a very kind man and spoke great english. Well enough to even use some slang pleasantries to describe some other Italian wine and olive companys he disapproved of. The owner gave us a quick, hour tour of his vineyard that included both grapes and olives. He is an organic grower and takes great pride in his products. He's won many awards which mean nothing to the common wine connoisseur but if his villa, vineyard, and attitude speak to his wine and olive oil I'm sure he's very accomplished. When the tour wrapped up our host took us into his villa for a private tasting of wine and oil. His wine and oils were great and the case we walked out with was proof. Even his Grappa was very delicious.
With a big happy wine buzz and not having anything to eat yet for the day, we asked our host if he could recommend a spot for lunch. He sure did. His own garden with "cold cuts". Right, cold cuts. Or fresh cut meats, cheeses, olives, breads, artichokes, cantaloupe, and honey. One of the sausages was a white boar that used to live in the vineyard until the owner shot it, processed it and then feed it to us. We were in heaven. Our gracious host also brought out the remaining bottles of wine we had used in our tasting. We were also invited to use the pool if we had liked. So to say the "vibe" was good would be an understatement.
Lunch really only lasted a couple of hours so we drank a cafe' for dessert and said goodbye to our hosts. Who had actually snuck in a "bonus" bottle of wine into our purchases as a gift. We also found out we could make reservations and stay at the Villa and enjoy some pool time and a greater menu for a weekend. Yes, please. We'll be back. Leaving the winery was again filled talk of how lucky we were to find ourselves in this situation with such hospitable people full of Italian culture and charm. I almost forgot....the winery were closed this day. How does this happen to us!?