Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Simone and I visited Siena a couple times this summer.  I had never been before and didn't know too much about it, but Simone wanted to show it to me, so beautiful Sunday afternoon in early July, we took the hour and 15 minute drive to Siena.

It was crowded.  It was really, really crowded.  All the parking places were overflowing.  Finally, thanks to a street vendor pointing out a spot, we parked.  (Now how "legal" the parking was, I don't know.  But we didn't get a ticket or anything, so it must have been either legal enough, or overlooked.)  

We walked into the city and after about 30 minutes, we discovered why it was so crowded.  Every year, on 2 July and 16 August, the city holds the Palio di Siena - a horse race conducted in the Piazza del Campo, which is the large, main piazza of the city.  We happened to be there on 1 July - the day before - when they hold a trial run in the evening.  

We discovered this fact while enjoying a cup of gelato at Nannini.  They had the television playing the news, which showed the thousands of people gathered in the piazza, waiting for the trial run to start. After we finished our gelato, we walked over to the piazza to see for ourselves.  It was PACKED.

 It was too crowded for me.  Simone kinda wanted to stay to watch it, but I was a party-pooper and vetoed that idea.  I don't like crowds that much, and this was a HUGE one.  It was warm and the thought of being squished in the center of the piazza like a sardine didn't appeal much to me.  Looking back on it, I kinda wished we would have stayed though.  Maybe next year we'll go back to experience it.

We did get to see some Carabinieri in their dress uniforms riding horses though.  They traditionally take a couple laps prior to the start of the race with swords drawn.  They did look pretty impressive.

The palio, as it is today, has been going on since 1656.  There are 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, in Siena, and each of them gets a horse into the race.  Well, kind of anyway.  There are only 10 horses run in the palio.  In the July palio, the seven contrade who weren't in it the year prior, automatically get placed and the other three places are decided by a drawing held in late May.  Then in August, the seven contrade who didn't run in the July palio will run, along with three that were decided by a drawing held in early July.  The winner of the palio is the horse (with or without the rider) who crosses the finish line first after three laps.  The jockeys ride bareback, using only a bridle and reins.  It gets pretty intense and exciting, from what I understand

We walked around the city for a bit and the streets were fairly empty (since everyone and their brother was at the palio trial).  The trial was over quickly though, and soon we saw a flood of people leaving the piazza.

A  bit later, we found ourselves on a side street and witnessed the procession of the contrada who won the trial race that night.  It was led by the horse and followed by a huge group from the contrada, surrounding the jockey, and singing the Verbena (which is a Sienese anthem), or rather, their version of the Verbena.  Each contrada seems to create their own version of the song, with words changed to suit their contrada.  

The very next week, we returned to a much less crowded Siena.  The weather was clear and beautiful, but it was a bit warmer.  We stopped by a little alimentare and bought a couple panini for lunch.  The owner was so nice, he had an ice-cold water dispenser in his shop and gave us a couple cups and told us that the water was free and if we got hot later to come back and get some more!

Most of the day, we spent touring the Duomo and a few other spots related to it (the baptistery, etc), but I'll save that for another post.

We walked into the Piazza del Campo, which was all cleaned up from the palio race the week before.

Before we walked into the Palazzo Publico, a band of drums and flags walked by.

We didn't stay long in that area, since we were hopping from site to site on our multipass.

We did end up visiting another church that was not on our multipass that day while we were there that day - The Basilica di San Francesco (this one was free to enter).

This amazing church was built between 1228 (two years after the death of Saint Francis) and 1255 (later expanded in the 14th & 15th centuries).  The interior is rather simple, mostly due to a fire that ravaged the building in 1655, however, to me, it seems appropriate, due to the simplistic nature of the Franciscans.

The lunette above the main door depicting San Francesco
and San Bernadino in adoration of the Virgin and Christ child
The interior is very dark.  Extremely dark.  Not very many electrical lights at all, so unfortunately my photos didn't turn out very well (I only had my iPhone with me to take pictures with).

The view entering the basilica

Looking toward the main door

The main altar

One of the side chapels

Another side chapel

Apparently the basilica was part of a miracle back in August of 1730.  On the 14th of that month, 351 consecrated Eucharistic wafers were stolen from the church.  Three days later, they were found, placed in the poor box of a nearby church (Santa Maria di Provenzano).  The wafers were in perfect condition, but the box that they were contained in was full of dust and cobwebs, so obviously they were not going to use them in communion.  They decided to keep the wafers, and after more than 280 years, they are still intact and look the same as they did back in 1730.  This might not seem so miraculous, but normally these wafers would have disintegrated within 2 years.  In 1914, they conducted a series of tests that showed no presence of bacteria, mites or mold, and were still composed of unleavened bread flour.  The ciborium (the container that holds the wafers) was tested and the interior DID in fact have bacteria, mites and mold.  Because of this, the Church declared that it was because the wafers were consecrated, and therefore were transubstantiated into the Real Presence of the Body of Jesus Christ.  Today, these miraculous wafers are still held in the basilica, housed in one of two chapels in the church.

A photo of a photo of the miraculous hosts

After we visited the basilica, we decided to stop by our favorite gelato chain, Grom, and cool down with a cone.

It was, as usual, fabulous.

After we left the shop, our tummies filled, it got a bit bizarre.

As we stepped out of the shop, a parade broke out.  Right in front of us!

Led by a drummer and flags, we quickly figured out that it was the contrada of Oca celebrating their win of the palio the week prior.

The entire contrada (neighborhood) must have been in the parade.  It was extremely long and had folks of all ages.  From babies....

...to school age children...

...to teenagers...

...to young adult/college age kids...

...through middle-aged and elderly folks!

EVERYONE was there!

These guys were handing out free panini (sandwiches)

This group of guys were handing out cups of wine

I got one, of course  :)

Later, this guy rolled up with a huge cask of wine in the back
and refilled everyone's cup!  (Viva Italia!  Viva Siena!)

It was basically one hell of a party!

I was certainly ready to move to Oca after that!  It was really neat to see the whole neighborhood be a part of such an amazing celebration!  I know that we will definitely be back...many, many times!

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