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08 December 2010 @ 11:42 pm
2010 Travel Advent-ures of Brammers, part 8  
You can see why I failed to write these up as I was going ... quite aside from the horror of typing on the netbook, I had to get some sleep in at some point!

We ended part 7 with a large group of textile nuts about to board a bus for Siena. Forty-five minutes, and with a good view along the way, we arrived and trundled up from one of the city gates towards Il Campo. Siena is a very well preserved mediaeval city, mostly thanks to the plague having wiped out so many people in the Middle Ages that it was never again wealthy enough for a big period of rebuilding (and after the plague, there were Medici, who had a similar effect but through war and taxation rather than horrible pus-filled death.) This is a typical street:

Saints have shrines on walls around the city, and busts of historical figures abound. Some are treated with reverence ...

Some with friendly familiarity ...

At the centre of the old town is the shell-shaped (including the dip towards the centre) Piazza del Campo. Tourists and locals mingle here, with people walking dogs, chatting with friends, sitting in the square for a moment, or frequenting one of the many cafes that line the perimeter (quick tip, prices drop off sharply a row back from Il Campo, but the view is less exciting. Great pizza slice place straight back from the tourist information centre, though!)

The most famous thing that happens twice a year here is Il Palio, a horse race held on July 2 and August 16. In each race, horses and riders represent ten of the 17 contrade of the city (seven that did not race last year plus three determined by lottery): each contrada is made up of a city neighbourhood with its own colours and banners and each contrada will happily tell you why they are the best. For the races, Il Campo has a thick layer of padded dirt laid, and padded barriers are brought in to keep the horses safe. The jockeys are on their own. The horses are volunteered by top breeders, are cross breeds, and can win the race without their jockeys (the jockeys are also hired in). It's all preceded by a massive parade with people in historic costumes, flags and folderol abungo. This is the Palazzo Pubblico, the town hall, which houses many things, including, at the rear, a storage facility for much of the Palio paraphernalia.

We dutifully trotted around to the storerooms and looked at flags, costumes, saddles, armour, and every other thing you could conceivably want to stage an historic horse race. Here is a particularly lovely banner, note the heraldric badges of all the contrade on the bottom, and the coat of arms of Siena at the top.

After nearly an hour of admiring the artefacts, we set out on the next leg of our adventure, not entirely sure what it was going to entail as the organisation of this conference had been mostly managed by gibbons. Still, if you are going to be wombling merrily around a city uncertain of what lies ahead, this is a very lovely city to do it in (and not too large, which was just as well when you consider the age of some of the attendees). I had a lovely chat with Brenda from San Francisco, who was funny, bright and political, but tragically a much slower walker than me, and I had to heartlessly abandon her so my manky foot would not stiffen up. Our next major stop was Siena's Il Duomo (this is the general Italian word for the main Cathedral, even if it lacks a dome) and we were given about twenty minutes to photograph the back and front of the building. The front is a little cheerfully crazy ...

... you need a close-up to appreciate just how crazy ...

And the interior holds many wonders. Alas, there was no time to see them as we were being hustled into the Santa Maria della Scala, an old hospital now art gallery. This was no bad thing in itself, the building is beautiful and contains many wonderful frescoes, as well as great works of art and a very good museum shop with fabulous books. But we were here to see more Palio artefacts. I believe at the time I was still more or less interested in the topic, but looking back I feel the Palio pall descending once more. This is a 19th century silk Palio banner ...

... that was once hung with eleven others at the home of Frederick Stibbert in Firenze. You will notice the crown, each contrada is represented by an animal with a crown. I am afraid we all became a bit silly at this point, and started deciding whether we would rather be represented by King Hedgehog or King Rhinoceros. Consensus was against going with King Snail, and that King Duck could at least be eaten if he brought us no luck. I fear we were not the good cultural tourists we could have been, but you must understand that we had been listening to people talk mostly bollocks about dance costumes for four days at this point, before being bussed off and shown loads of things to do with a horse race -- which had bugger all to do with dance and only a little to do with costume. Still, very beautiful!

I'm not sure whether or not I talked about Stibbert the last time I was in Italy. He was a Victorian Anglo-Italian and a keen collector of everything, and his home is now Museo Stibbert, filled with everything from spectacularly good Japanese and Western armour to Renaissance artworks, ivory fans and delicate textiles. The bedrooms are still kept much as they were: Stibbert's modest and filled with military accoutrements and banners, right beside his mother's palatial suite filled with silks and gilt. It will not surprise you to learn he never married. If you are in Firenze, take the bus up to Museo Stibbert, I promise you that you will find something to make the trip worthwhile.

Back to Siena ... After seeing the banners we were ushered back out, guards making sure we did not slip into other galleries and see non-Palio related art (thank goodness there were ten minutes for the bookshop or I would have been beside myself!). Then we went further into the complex to the next horsey artefacts. We were not meant to take photos of the best frescoes inside the old hospital, but this was mentioned after I had taken this one, so here you have it.

Being an enormous building, there is room to hold many of the more exciting Palio artefacts here, and our next stop was to see some of the old carts that had been used in parades last century and the one before. From here it was out into the gently misting rain and a short walk downhill to visit the museum headquarters of the Contrada della Selva. Despite being completely Palio-ed out by this point, we had a lovely time here as the gentleman who spoke to us about the history of the race and the contrada was absolutely delightful -- gently proud, but mostly amusing, informative and gracious.

Contrada dell Selva is the Forest Contrada, and has been the winningest contrada of the last 30 or 40 years (forgive me lovely man, but I had vagued out at this point). Their colours are green and orange, as you can see above, and their headquarters is lined with winning trophies in the form of quite beautiful banners ...

The banner is awarded to the horse, not the rider. And if the jockey has fallen off partway through, it does not matter. The loser of the race is not the one who comes last, who was clearly just outclassed, but the one who comes second, who was clearly just not trying hard enough.

It was a lovely building, our hosts were friendly, and we felt very welcome there, especially when trays of pizza and glasses of prosecco were handed around, but I have to confess that an all-Palio day had dampened the enthusiasm of even the horsiest among us. I can say this with conviction, because that was me -- I spent much of my young life at the family stud and can still wake up on the dot at 4am if there is a need to exercise a thoroughbred (not for love or money for any other reason (aside from an early morning flight), mind you). Even I had felt that three hours of Palio were enough and as we passed hour six found myself giggling dementedly 'Did you know they have a horse race in Siena?'

Unfortunately I was hanging out with the young NIDA students, and feel I may have influenced them badly. However, as I helped them with gelati selections earlier in the day and translated some poetry for them in the art bookshop, I can claim two acts of good influence against my one of bad.

Thankfully, Ferrari had won the Grand Prix that day, so we were able to chat with the Selva members about something that was not horse racing. We were bussed back to Firenze in time for a late dinner, H1 and H2 and I went to Trattoria Marione (cheap and delicious, on via della Spada) and were given Vin Santo and cantuccini (dessert wine and almondy biscuits) even though we had not asked for them, but because we were all 'so very beautiful'. Being cynical as well as beautiful, we expected it to be added to the bill, but it was not!

As both H1 and H2 had sensibly spent the day in Arezzo rather than in Palio-land, we exchanged tales -- they had been to a market and found hand-woven vintage linen, before eating a spectacular supper and watching the sun set with a glass of grappa. I told them I hated them while we packed up the flat, tomorrow they would be off to London and I would be off to a hotel and back to my solo travels. Before going to sleep, I mentally apologised to Mr Selva and Jilly Cooper for thinking such dark thoughts about horse racing, but was deeply relieved I would be heading back to Siena in a couple of days to actually see some of it properly.

Current Location: still sofa
Current Music: American diplomats loving KRudd
AMY 凛☆ラブ☆アタック: sweettomatoe18 on December 8th, 2010 12:52 pm (UTC)
I'm homesick after seeing this post.

each contrada will happily tell you why they are the best.

I will tell you that Leocorno was the best. :)
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 8th, 2010 01:01 pm (UTC)
Well, they have a King Unicorn, so they SHOULD be good! I can see why you love Siena so, it is a wonderful city.
Kieranfilmatleven on December 8th, 2010 12:58 pm (UTC)
Ok some of that architecture is amazing.
blamebramptonblamebrampton on December 8th, 2010 01:02 pm (UTC)
If only I was a halfway decent photographer ... I have some better shots from my second visit that will go up in a few days.
this mundane stuff called lifewinnett on December 8th, 2010 03:13 pm (UTC)
So beautiful! I've never been there.
Jaeenchanted_jae on December 8th, 2010 08:04 pm (UTC)
Such beautiful architecture and art!
shu_shu_sleepsshu_shu_sleeps on December 8th, 2010 08:17 pm (UTC)
You know I may just have to start saving my pennies so I go to this textile conference at some point. I am just drooling all over my keyboard every time I read one of these :)
adores_dracoadores_draco on December 8th, 2010 10:41 pm (UTC)
Could I please hire you the next time I need a guide? I really enjoy your well written travelogues. :)
Azure Jane Lunaticazurelunatic on December 10th, 2010 02:10 am (UTC)
So lovely! And your tales, so entertaining!