A Palio is the name given to the annual athletic contests held in Italy, within which neighbourhoods compete against each other. These date back to the middle ages and traditionally the communities race in costume to commemorate the history of the city. Once purely a matter of local rivalries, many have now become huge events attracting both visitors and foreign tourists.
If you’ve ever heard of the Palio then it’s probably been in the Tuscan city of Siena. It’s super famous and a lot bigger than the Palio in Ferrara. However, few people know the oldest and original Palio is in fact that of Ferrara, even though the one held in Siena is bigger and more well-known on an international scale.
So a couple of weeks ago we spent a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in Piazza Ariostea in Ferrara, watching this spectacular historical event. Many Italian protested and didn’t go this year as this is the first year they have charged for entry (!!!); many people were outraged and refused to pay either on principle or just due to the fact that they’d seen it before and didn’t need to pay to see it again. Although having said that, only being here for a year we were very much encouraged to pay the 7 euros and go as we were assured it was would be worth it.
The palio is not just a one-day affair. Yes the actual palio itself lasted just an afternoon, but you would not believe the build up. The orchestra and processions have been practicing for months; every Thursday evening in one of the main piazzas the sound of drums rings through the sky and the flag bearers practice their parade week in week out.
We took our places and watched as the processions of each neighbourhood entered the piazza and paraded around. It was fantastic. Each neighbourhood had their own flag and colours, each with some sort of marching band and flag throwers, and each procession involved local people from the age of 3 to 93! It really was a sight to see. The crowds were also very much getting into it. Much like at a football match the “fans” were segregated into their own little sections so were all seated together and all roared each time their neighbourhood went past.
Then started the races: firstly a group of boys ran two laps of the piazza – one from each neighbourhood, then the girls. The crowds exploded when their team won. I’m unsure as to what they actually win but I think above all it’s pride. Their teams ran down onto the track and they each did a lap of honour after the race, the winning runners being carried oin the shoulders of their team mates, much like they’d just won the World Cup! Then it was the turn of the donkeys; men raced round on bare-backed donkeys and were met with much the same reaction as the runners. I must mention all the runners and jockeys were dressed in the traditional dress and colours of their neighbourhood too. It reminded me a little of sports day at school, but on a much larger scale!
Then came the main event….the horses. After a little wait out they all came and did a little lap around to show off to the crowds, jockeys looking pumped and ready to go, teams doting hand and foot on the horses. It was very serious stuff. The commentator then began summoning them up, one by one, to the start line…
“San Giovani..al tuo posto, grazie”
…and so on and so forth.
HOWEVER, San somebody-or-other, the second last horse to be summoned, was not playing ball. I’m unsure as to whether it was the horse or the jockey or a combination of the two but he point-blank refused to line up.
So we waited….
…and just when you think they’re going to go….FALSE START. All hell breaks loose, and it’s back to square one. Couldn’t believe it.
So we waited some more…
…and some more…
….false start number two. YOU HAVE TO BE KIDDING.
We’d been waiting a good hour by this point and every time there was a false start, all the teams came back onto the track, jockeys dismounted their horses, horses were groomed and washed a little. It was getting ridiculous. The crowd was getting agitated as was the commentator, shouting over the microphone things like “Oh for goodness sake can we all just please behave and get in line. This isn’t a playground boys!” and then things slightly stronger as the frustration grew.
AN HOUR AND A HALF after the horses had entered the piazza they FINALLY set off in a race that lasted the best part of two minutes. It was pretty spectacular and the crowds went wild, but the waiting beforehand was beyond a joke. I’m glad we hung around though, just about worth it, and could hardly live in Ferrara for six months and not see the palio.