The Sienese know how to celebrate. Each year Siena hosts its annual Palio, a twice a summer horse race. Each contrada submits a horse and rider in hopes of winning the palio itself, a decorated banner, and year long bragging rights. Almost two months after their win, this year’s victors are still celebrating.
There are two Palio races, one in July and one in August, but there seems to be an unspoken assumption that the August winners are far more prestigious. Because there are 17 contrade, the small and fiercely loyal city neighborhoods, only 10 race each Palio. While this is mostly due to issues of space, time and money (the Palio costs contrade members a hefty sum) its probably also a godsend for Sienese sanity. Though I have yet to see a Palio in person, watching the educational video showed race’s emotional devastation, for both the winners and the losers.
This past summer the winner was L’Onda, The Wave. L’Onda’s land borders one corner of Piazza del Campo and my own adopted contrada, La Torre. Much to my confusion, during my first week in Siena homework and sleep were interrupted by music, chanting and roman candles. This turned out to be the weekly celebrations of L’Onda, the biggest of which came with a nighttime contrada party. While I failed to attend due to jet lag, L’Onda marched its Palio trophy around the neighborhood, many dressed in period costume to invoke Palios past.
The whole of L’Onda neighborhood is decorated in celebration. Every street is hung with the official L’Onda flag, and many of the bars and cafes have their windows plastered with Palio photographs. The streets have even been set up with giant L’Onda lamps. They’re large, perhaps two feet tall, brightly enameled fish with five or so light bulbs springing from the tail like water droplets. It quite the sight at night, with the light spilling into il Campo.
This past Saturday L’Onda had their final victory dinner. My walk to school each morning brings me by the covered market, and as I passed this week it was under construction: backdrops, entrance ways, rows upon rows of trestle tables and seating. The Saturday night dinner was open only for L’Onda contrada members, and so we found ringside seats in the form of some friends’ apartment windows overlooking the square.
I’m not sure how to define a contrada, as I’m still getting a sense of it myself. Its almost as if, from an American perspective, you are born into an enthusiastic football team. It’s by birth, blood or marriage, and in being part of a contrada you are given a network of family and friends. When a couple marries, or if they move outside their contrada, their children’s contrada is most often that of the mother. When you can you pay dues to sustain it: both to fund the Palio and the contrada museum, of which many have priceless art and artifacts, but also to make sure the neighborhood can put on yearly educational and recreational events for children and families.
Hundreds were at this dinner, dressed up and seated at tables an entire block long. Kids ran up and down the aisles waving L’Onda flags, and adults sat with L’Onda scarves tied around their necks. It reminded me somewhat of an elegant tailgate, but instead of bros and beer there were jockeys and Chianti. Two stages were set up at the ends of the square, each with a screen and one with a table for the contrada organizers. Somewhere, under the cover of darkness, the real champion was being tended to: the L’Onda racehorse, who is more a celebrity than the jockey. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and I’m glad that’s the case: it was a bit of Siena I won’t find anywhere else.