SIENA -- My love for this medieval city's Palio horse race started with a few plates and bowls.
In the mid-1990s, as I planned an extended trip to Europe, two friends asked me to pick up a few pieces of Siena's unique pottery for them. Once here, I found pottery stores on many of the cobblestone streets, which wind around the town center and flash an occasional view of the Tuscan hills beyond.
The pottery proved extraordinary. Each plate, bowl, pitcher, and cup is hand-painted with one of 17 animals or symbols representing Siena's 17 districts, or "contrade." Each dish is trimmed in the official colors of that contrada: The plate with the "valdimontone," or ram, for example, has a vibrant yellow and rose rim; the "pantera," or panther, is surrounded by a bold red and blue border; the colors of the delicately painted "bruco," the caterpillar, are a lively blue, yellow, and green; and the "oca," or goose, with its red and green border, is especially suited to Christmas dinners.
This summer, I learned the meaning and traditions attached to these striking dishes.
The horse race, Il Palio di Siena, has been traced to 1310 and probably started earlier. Each year, 10 of Siena's 17 contrade are in the race, either by winning the right to compete -- last year's winner, for example -- or by lottery. While it originally was held once a year, a second Palio was approved in 1656, according to one city history. Every year, races take place July 2, which is both the date of the Feast of the Visitation and a festival honoring the Madonna of Provenzano, and Aug. 16, the day after the Feast of the Assumption.
I arrived in Siena, a city of about 56,000, early on a Friday after a six-hour flight from Boston to Milan, and a train ride. The Palio was scheduled for Monday. To my delight, throngs of people were gathering in the Piazza del Campo, or town square, for a dry run of the race.
Festivities leading up to the race turn out to be at least as important as the race itself, which lasts only a few minutes. On Friday night, schoolchildren filed in, each wearing a silk scarf with the mascot and bold colors of the family contrada. They sat on bleachers, grouped by contrada and looking like a rainbow from across the piazza.
Once aware of the race's importance to Siena's identity, a tourist begins to notice these mascots everywhere. They grace the city's fountains and the marble floor mosaics in the Duomo, the 13th-century cathedral at the top of the hill that defines the city's geography. The wolf is carved into the stone walls of the horse stable off the piazza, and lamps shaped like dolphins ("capitana dell' onda," or captain of the wave, the mascot of another contrada, is a dolphin with a crown) hang from ancient residences. Residents of each contrada proclaim their loyalties by hanging flags from their homes and storefronts.
As it has for centuries, the Palio is run on a dirt track ringing the piazza, which has a cobblestone pattern reminiscent of a "nicchio," or seashell (another mascot).
Excitement filled Siena's streets before the warm-up races. As I walked along one of 11 narrow streets leading down the hill and into the piazza, I was pushed aside by a phalanx of residents from the dolphin district -- identified by blue-and-white scarves around their necks. They were led by a man clutching the bridle of their prized black stallion, which would enter the race.
Hungry and tired from traveling all day, I ducked into a small restaurant for dinner and ordered an excellent risotto with a port wine reduction, with thistle and peas. My dinner experience was marred by a heated discussion with the proprietress, who could not understand why I would buy a three-euro glass of red wine (about $4) when I could have a four-euro half carafe ($5.50). Having the advantage of speaking her native language, she won -- but I still couldn't drink all the wine.
Back in the Piazza del Campo, the crowd had swelled. A procession marched around the circular dirt track where the race would take place. Representatives from each contrada entered the track in costume -- boots and tights, funny hats, and lavishly embroidered robes in the contrada's colors. They practiced the noble art of flag waving, brandishing their oversized flags, throwing them into the air, and catching them before they could touch the ground. That was followed by a horse-drawn carriage that in ancient times carried flags and altars that allowed Palio participants to pray before the event.
The warm-up Palio started late but was great fun. First, bareback riders -- also in costume -- pranced their horses around the track. For the "race," they galloped three times around the track. The Sienese gasped and then roared with delight when two jockeys fell off their horses.
Exhausted, I retired to my postage-stamp room in Hotel Minerva. The hotel sits hard against the ancient wall that encircles the city, and I had e-mailed the staff repeatedly to ensure my room had a view of the city. When I entered and opened the terrace doors, a full moon hung over the Duomo. I was glad to be away from the center of the city, and even then I had to close my doors to sleep. It turned out there was another, late-night Palio tradition: Elaborate, rowdy dinners in the racing contrade. Exuberant residents, seated at 30- and 50-foot-long tables, break out in song -- apparently loud enough to be heard by competing contrade as their music reverberated among Siena's brick walls.
The next day I visited the Duomo, an architectural treasure completed around the 14th century. Its exterior is encrusted with pink and white marble, gargoyles, and religious statuary that seem to reel on their perches high up on the facade. Inside, the black-and-white columns with horizontal stripes are by themselves magnificent. I would devote the afternoon to finding the best plate and bowl painter in the entire city. I found him at Studio Artistico.
Alessandro Marchionni, the artist, and his wife, Virginia, were warm to me and made me feel a bit less like a tourist and more like I belonged. Marchionni graduated from a Florence art academy and taught pottery decoration in high school for 30 years, all the while researching the tradition of Sienese pottery and working as a professional.
I watched him as he bent over a spaghetti bowl, clearly more talented than the job commanded. Using a fine paint brush, he put down the first delicate outline at the center of the plate. Virginia's job was to paint the bold, geometric borders. They also confided that their contrada was the cheerful goose, which has a blue ribbon streaming from his long neck.
I ordered four plates (I had six at home from my '90s trip) and two dessert plates for a gift, which cost more than $500. (The exchange rate is currently low, about 1.4 euro for each US dollar). Alessandro agreed to paint four spaghetti bowls for me in September, after the summer rush was over.
Now I must confess: I did not stick around for Il Palio. I had made plans to go to Ravello on the Amalfi Coast. My traveling companions, who included 9-year-old Streett and his 5-year-old sister, Shi-Shi, and their mother picked me up on Sunday to drive to the coast.
But we saw the race. Once ensconced in our hotel atop the rocky hills of Amalfi, overlooking the Mediterranean, my young companions and I watched it on television.
Lining up the horses for the race is in itself a competition as each rider jockeys for a strong position behind a single rope stretched across the dusty track. The horses kept knocking each other off the rope, and it took at least a half-hour for them to line up and stay there. Then the rope dropped, and the horses took off. The Palio was fleeting but exciting -- much like the Kentucky Derby.
Jockeys fell off their horses this time, too. Nearing the finish line, the shell -- the horse Shi-Shi was rooting for -- and the goose -- Alessandro and Virginia's mascot and my rooting interest -- were neck and neck.
The winner: the goose!
Kimberly Blanton can be reached at email@example.com.