Monday, 27 July 2015

Palio of Siena

Tuscany in Italy has created and still houses some of the greatest works of art mankind has ever produced.
Spending time in this region I find myself wondering why. Examining the culture it is noticeable how much people are driven by passion. Passion for love, for beauty, for good food and wine, for music, poetry and prose, design, the thrill of speed, the love of battling to win and of overcoming one's enemies. Passion is predominately credited in Italy for driving success. The works of great composers, writers, painters, sculptors, architects and designers. The subliminal and inexplicable elements that are the spirit of a Ferrari, a great film or the best Italian cooking. So what is it about passion that seems to produce such impressive results?
I would like to think that all of us possess the capacity to feel passion. I believe we do, but that it is more easily sparked in some of us than others. Advertisers work hard to unlock it. But is it something that comes from within us or is it injected? Some would have it that passion is something primeval, coming from nature – not something logical, predictable or controllable. I like to come down on that side. Yet I know that it is possible to unlock passion in others if we understand them well enough. This must be the ultimate power.

In August, in the beautiful city of Siena I encounter a society with so much of its sophisticated historical past intact in its current culture. I am here for the annual Palio. An ancient and somewhat strange horse race run through the streets of the main square. The passion for the Palio is palpable everywhere. It is not a tourist event. In fact outsiders are barely tolerated. Intrigued, I look up the history.

There are two Palios each year. One in July and one in August, when people are mad with the heat and their blood is up. Ten horses are selected and assigned to the ten participating 'Contrada' by lottery from those offered by local breeders. Owners win little money. It is about the glory of winning - these are riches enough. Riders however can become financially rich, it is said. The horses are named 'The Barbero' and the jockey 'The Barbesco'. As you can see, this is a primitive battle, not a sport. The Contrada were originally local barracks of soldiers. When not fighting wars, they needed an outlet for their passions and desire for danger. Warlike games were devised. Over time these were banned or died out, leaving only the Palio horse race. The motivations of the race are hard for outsiders to understand. They are based in historic issues. The ten horses are blessed in the church of the Contrada they run for. Yes, horses in church! Yet it is a secular festival. The race is dangerous both for riders and horses. The track is compacted Tufo earth over the cobbled square. Corners are padded with mattresses and leather. Horses and riders die (less so of late). Crowds go wild for what is merely a 4 minute race. The passion swells from the start of the week, building through the 3 days of practice races and culminates in an explosion of madness (it is said it is as if the walls of Siena are about to fall) when it comes to the final event.

The Palio is both moral and openly corrupt (bribery goes with the territory). There is no advertising or sponsorship by the likes of Coca Cola or Heineken here. Yet this is no contradiction to the locals. It is The Palio. It is for me an undeniably beautiful and thrilling spectacle, where over years they have learned the power of the long, painful buildup to an explosive crescendo. To have any hope of a good view, spectators either pay between 250 and 2500 Euro to stand or sit on a balcony or they bag a place in the centre of the square and stand in blazing heat, crammed cheek by jowl for 6hrs. For the last 2hrs of that wait, the crowd needs to endure a painfully slow procession of traditionally dressed flag tossers then finally a bullock cart of dignitaries. Just when you think boredom will kill you if the heat doesn't, a gun goes off and the horses arrive to tumultuous applause. There is a further agonising wait as they try to get each of the ten horses and Jockeys to line up. Maybe half-an-hour before the shouts of a desperate crowd (many by now carried away on stretchers due to heatstroke) result in the starting gun being fired.

Bang! Complete orgasmic madness ensues. The Colosseum in Rome with its gladiators never saw the like.
The writhing mass of thousands of spectators as they stretch and fight to see, while the horses run at literally breakneck speed around the track. A faller at the San Martino bend sees a rider break his leg. The horse runs on. The rules say it can still win without a rider. As the horses pass us at the end of a lap the crowd around me is wild with passion - as am I. Involuntary tears blur my vision. Fear is there too. The hoofs thunder. Jockeys pull at one another as they dice with death at our turn. Our Contrada's horse is ahead! It's unbelievable. People all around seem as if they might die of their excitement. Women wail and clasp their heads. Men, like crazed beasts, bellow encouragement and foam at the mouth. The final lap is upon us already. Our horse still ahead followed by the riderless horse. People swoon and collapse beneath the feet of the crowd with emotional exhaustion as the winner thunders past in a blur. And it's our Contrada's horse - the people we shared dinner with in the streets last night! It is as if we have been in the midst of an epic battle rather than a race. Everyone is crying and looking like they've lost their minds. People tear at their clothes, their hair. None of us will ever be the same again. Celebrations begin before the shock has even begun to subside. Scenes of absolute mania. They climb the barriers en-mass and mob the jockey, pulling him from his horse. The jockey looks afraid, as well he might. The foaming horse rears up and has to be restrained. I have never seen or experienced anything like it. This is true passion – three and a half minutes of explosively devastating passion. This is The Palio di Siena. Now I know why someone at dinner last night told me with a flash of manic fire in his eyes, that once you've seen one, you are hooked.
I am calm now. My heartbeat is almost normal again - but not quite. The very thought of it makes my heart-rate begin to climb.
In the same way that Zen Archery is said to be the key to understanding Zen, for me The Palio is the key to understanding the notion of passion - in the Italians at least, but probably in the human race. It's primitive. Lust. The quest for fire. The climb of the men of the winning Contrada, up a wooden tower to retrieve the flag with the Madonna, that they will cherish until next year. They climb and fall several times in their mania. Finally they reach it and parade it around the circuit. Again the crowd goes wild. I feel like I died and was reborn that day. I kid you not!

In 2008/9 Mark Swain cycled from Ireland to Tokyo, a journey of 10,000 miles, with his 18 year old son Sam. If you would like to read their bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons', you can find this, along with his two collections of short stories, on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


  1. Brilliant as always. Mark you have just made me all the more determined to do this myself.

  2. Brilliant as always. Mark you have just made me all the more determined to do this myself.