Taking Tea in the Kasbah

We arrived at our next destination in the early evening after a leisurely day lounging about in the piazza of Vernazza (you can read more about Vernazza and the Cinque Terre here). We were sad to leave our tranquil spot by the sea though we both looked forward to seeing more of Tuscany through one of its loveliest cities, Siena.

We waited patiently for our B & B host, Luciano, to pick us up from the train station. When he arrived, his warm smile was as bright as the sunflower painted on the side of his van. He welcomed us to Siena with the charm and sincerity so common in many of the Italians we had encountered so far on our travels. He spoke some English and we did our best to speak in Italian as much as possible as he drove us out into the countryside to Il Canto del Sole, the B & B where he and his wife, Laura, and son, Marco, live and host guests from all over the world.

Laura and Luciano lovingly restored their 18th century farmhouse and barn and turned them into charming rooms and dining areas for guests. There is also a salt water swimming pool as well as extensive gardens and grounds to wander and enjoy.

Upstairs sitting room

A blurry, not so good photo of our delightful room furnished with antique furniture original to the farmhouse.

Upon arrival, we were given a cheerful welcome by Laura who was running the front desk. It was dusk by now and she worried about what we were going to do for dinner since we didn’t have a car to go to a restaurant in Siena which was six miles away. Normally, she and Luciano would prepare a large dinner to share with the guests who are staying at Il Canto but because we had arrived during the week leading up to the Palio, Siena’s centuries-old horse race, they were very busy with preparations and were not cooking dinner for guests that week.

Unfortunate timing on my part.

Gracious hosts that they are, Laura and Luciano took pity on us and asked if we would like them to prepare a snack for us to eat before they went out for the evening. Hot, tired, and hungry, we gladly accepted and thanked them for the trouble, though I felt like such an idiot for not knowing ahead of time that we should have eaten while in town before getting picked up at the station. I worried about putting them out but Luciano insisted and then escaped into the kitchen to prepare a snack. Laura kept us company by explaining in great detail what the Palio entailed.

In a nutshell, Laura’s explanations could be summarized by her one insistent statement, a statement that Mappy and I will forever more come to associate with our time in Siena:

The Palio is complicated.

Laura, in her best English (which was pretty good), explained how Siena is divided into 17 contrade, or districts, each named for their representative animal (like a mascot). Each contrada has their own cathedral, well or fountain, and colorful flags and lamps that decorate the buildings in the contrada’s distinct colors. During the week leading up to the famous horse race, there are daily activities going on as well as nightly dinners held at each of the cathedrals. While they don’t live in Siena proper, Laura and Luciano were born and raised in the Valdimontone (Ram) contrada and have remained very loyal and connected to their church and community.

Laura stopped her Palio lesson there, probably because we looked overwhelmed and hungry, possibly because it was far more complicated (as she had reminded us several times) to explain before she needed to rush off to her contrada for the evening. She told us she had a video in English for us to watch the next morning during breakfast that would explain in greater detail the complicated nature of the Palio.

Luciano had finished preparing our snack by then and led us up to the loggia (balcony) near our room. As we sat down to eat, we were both blown away by the quantity of food laid before us. When Luciano had said he would prepare a ‘snack’, Mappy and I both figured we would have some bread and a little cheese to tide us over til morning. Luciano’s version of a snack was way more refined and filling, much to our delighted surprise.

Our snack on the loggia. Under the setting Tuscan sun.

Sunset view from the loggia

At Il Canto del Sole, a snack Luciano-style consists of two kinds of cheeses, olives, hard-boiled eggs, thinly sliced prosciutto, freshly picked basil, the most delicious tomatoes I had eaten in a long time drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with salt, fresh bread, and some of their homemade wine to wash it all down. We were in heaven. I was liking Italy more and more every day. My people would approve.

The next day we had breakfast with the other guests in the outdoor courtyard. Laura and the B & B cooks had a feast of pastries, eggs, cereals, breads, and fruits ready and waiting. And, of course, a cappuccino was delivered to you within moments of sitting down.

The dining room at Il Canto del Sole

After we ate, Mappy and I watched the English video about the Palio. I had read a fair amount about it before traveling to Italy so the video didn’t really add much to my knowledge. When it was over, we asked a few polite questions and in response, Laura handed several pamphlets (in English) to help us further understand since she was not feeling confident about her English to explain it well. Laura was determined to make sure we were well-schooled on it, possibly because I was silly enough to have booked a stay at a B & B six miles outside of the city without a car during the busy week of Palio, though more likely she pitied us and our car-less ways.

Here’s what we learned that morning about the Palio:

The Palio is held twice a year, on July 2nd (called Palio di Provenzano, in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano) and again on August 16th (called Palio dell’Assunta, in honor of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary).

The Palio has been held since 1310 in various forms, including the racing of buffalo and donkeys. The modern race with horses began in 1656.

It is held in Siena’s main piazza, Il Campo. A tightly packed dirt track is laid around the perimeter of Il Campo for the race. Spectators crowd into the middle of the track to watch it.

The 17 contrade include: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Little Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Crested Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Seashell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave/Dolphin), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest/Rhinoceros), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower/Elephant), and Valdimontone (Ram).

Each contrada has their own flag, coat of arms, symbol, and colors.

You must be born into or marry into a contrada to be a member of it.

Each contrada has strong alliances as well as enemies. Loyalties and animosities run deep and have persisted over centuries. Pride in your contrada is paramount.

Even though there are 17 contrade, only 10 participate in the Palio. When the next race occurs, the 7 who were not in the previous race are automatically in and an additional 3 are chosen by a draw.

The assignment of horses for each of the contrade is taken very seriously. A lottery is held to determine which horses will be running for each of the contrade. People come from all of the contrade to attend the horse assignment process that is held in Il Campo.

After a horse has been assigned to a contrada, members of that contrada walk the horse (with lots of fanfare, shouting, and singing) to the contrada church to be blessed. The horse is brought inside the church for this.

A jockey does not have to be physically on the horse for a contrada to win the race. In other words, it is only the horse that wins, not the jockey.

Parades with flags and men in medieval costumes are held throughout the week leading up to the Palio. On the day of the race, a spectacular parade called the Corteo Storico is held in Il Campo.

And many, many more layers of nuance that involves alliances, deception, and trickery among the contrade that only the Sienese seem to fully understand.

Laura was right. The Palio is complicated.

After breakfast, Laura had offered to drive us into Siena for a day of sightseeing. (She also generously offered to pick us up at the end of the day so we didn’t have to pay for a taxi. Did we luck out or what?) There are several porta (gates) around the perimeter of Siena that allow entrance to the city. The Porta Romana became our daily pick up and drop off point. Mappy and I liked to think it was because it was the closest gate to Il Canto del Sole and therefore easiest for Laura or Luciano to get to and not because it was right next to this:

Was it just a coincidence that our drop off location was next to the psychiatric hospital?

Mappy and I wandered through the different contrade, taking note of when we left one and entered another by looking at the flags hanging from the buildings as we made our way to Siena’s main cathedral, the Duomo.

The flags of two of the contrada

Even though we had not yet been to Rome, Siena’s Duomo was my favorite cathedral of the trip thus far. The quantity and quality of art packed in to this one space was simply breathtaking.

The stunning mosaics and frescoes, intricate marble inlays, and the gorgeous sculpltures by Bernini and statues by Michelangelo all contributed to the masterpiece that is the Duomo. The structure that stands today was begun in 1215 and was worked on over the next century and a half.

Next, we went behind the Duomo to the Duomo Musuem and made our way up the very narrow stairs to the Panorama del Facciatone which gives you a bird’s-eye view of the whole city.

View of Il Campo and the Palio dirt track

We also had planned to see the Basilica San Domenico, one of Siena’s most important and oldest churches. The age and importance of the basilica were reasons enough to check it out but I’ll confess there was another reason I was interested in seeing it. While reading up on Siena in preparation for the trip, I discovered that the Basilica San Domenico (also known as Basilica Cateriniana) has on display the head and thumb of St. Catherine, the patron saint of Siena.

You read that right. The actual head and thumb of a once living person. 

This kinda freaked me out and intrigued me all at the same time. When I asked Mappy (whose job it was to be knowledgeable on all things related to Italian art and religion) why a church would keep and display the body parts of a patron saint (instead of, say, the whole body), she explained that many churches contain holy relics of patron saints for parishoners to pray next to. Not being Catholic, I had no idea this was done. I was learning something new everyday.

Of course, I had to go see it with my own eyes. I mean no disrespect to anyone, but it’s not every day I get to see a preserved head, let alone a sacred one. I simply couldn’t pass it up.

Basilica San Domenico

The Basilica is perched on top of a steep hill that required a small sacrifice from your quads, glutes, and 6 gallons of sweat to get to on a hot Sienese day. You have to really want to see it to hike up the roughly 84,000 stairs to get there. Construction on it began in 1226 by the Dominicans with several additions and changes made to expand it over the centuries. St. Catherine’s relics were brought from Rome to Siena in 1383 by Blessed Raymond of Capua.

Inside, the basilica was a very quiet and cool oasis. Its austere interior seemed especially plain when followed by a recent visit to the ornate Duomo. We wandered silently around the church until we came across what we’d gone there to see: St. Catherine’s Sacred Head. No photos were allowed but I can tell you it was both a bit eerie and fascinating. Her eyes were closed (thankfully) and her preserved head seemed to just float there in the gilded container placed upon a pedestal. Several parishioners were seated in silent prayer in front of her, hopefully oblivious to the awestruck American gaping at the sight over their shoulders.

(We never did find the thumb, though Rick Steves points out in his guide-book that sometimes it’s on loan to other churches. Not being Catholic, I wasn’t sure what to make of that.)

We spent the rest of the day wandering the streets of Siena, eating delicious food and marveling at the festive air in each of the contrade. By the time Luciano arrived at the Porta Romana (or the Ospedale Psichiatrico, depending on your take) to pick us up, we were ready to have some relaxation back at Il Canto del Sole. Siena was proving to be a fascinating city. The next day was going to be full of all things Palio and we needed to rest up for how delightfully complicated it was all going to be.


So, lovely readers, what are your thoughts or questions on Siena? Does the Palio sound complicated? Would you have hiked all of those stairs to see a sacred head of a patron saint? Does anyone have any ideas on why a thumb would be loaned out? Have some tea and sit a while. I’d love to hear from you.

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16 thoughts on “Siena: The Palio is Complicated

  1. HI Tami, It is so interesting to read other takes on a place I have visited. We loved Siena, and I plan to write about it soon, but my take will be completely different, and hopefully complementary, to yours. Your B&B sounds wonderful with such delightful hosts. Looking forward to your post on the Palio.

    • Thanks, Janice. I’m looking forward to reading about your time in Siena. It will be interesting to see what your take was on the city.

  2. Wow, some really wonderful photos. Sounds like an amazing time. Your question about climbing stairs reminds me of some stairs I climbed in Ålesund, Norway. They were many and steep and snaked their way up a hillside in a park. Not being in the best shape, by the time I got to the top, my heart was beating so fast I thought it was going to burst through my chest, flop onto the ground at my feet, and explode. But it was worth it…it was beautiful up there 🙂

    • You know, Mike, you should create a post or two about your adventures in Norway. I’ll bet you’ve got some great stories. I’d love to read about it and would enjoy seeing some photos, too. 🙂

      • I do have some ideas for some Norway posts, as soon as I get back on some sort of posting schedule. Taking math during the summer, in addition to trying to work on some writing, has made it much harder to keep up with the blog 🙁

        • I haven’t found a balance yet between the blog and the novel. I can’t imagine throwing math classes into the mix so it’s understandable the blog is taking a bit of a rest for now. Looking forward to those Norway posts in the future. 🙂

            • I hope so for your sake. 🙂 You sound incredibly busy these days, which makes your stopping by and commenting here all the more impressive. Thank you!

  3. Yes, I would have hiked up all those stairs to see the sacred head. The skeptic in me wonders though. Is it really a human head? And if it is human, is it the same one they started off with?
    Although, I did see human bones cast into the stone paving of the patio of an old courtyard in Quito. Something about ancestors warding off evil.
    I’m sure our present day traditions seem just as weird when viewed from a distance.

    • It looked like a real human head to me. Was it really St. Catherine’s? Can’t be sure. I’m assuming the guy who brought it back from Rome had it verified and authenticated somehow.

      Bones in the stones of the patio in Quito sounds fascinating. I kinda like the idea of our ancestors warding off evil for us. I know I could use a little of that these days. 😉

  4. Your photographs are wonderful! How lucky that you got to experience such a significant part of the local culture. Palio may be complicated but it’s rich in history and tradition. I totally would have climbed the stairs to see the saint’s head. I’m amazed that a religion founded on a guy who taught “you are not the body” focuses on that very thing to such a degree. But I’m not Catholic either, so I’m probably missing something there. 😉

    • Thanks, Elizabeth! Even though the Palio was complicated, I was really glad we were there during the week leading up to it and that our hosts took the time to help us understand it and included us in some Palio festivities (more on that in my next post).

      Sounds like I am in good company in my morbid fascination with the sacred head. Glad I’m not the only one. 🙂

  5. Oh but I so love seeing the world through your travels, Tami! Italy in particular is on the MUST DO list sometime before I’m too hobbled and hunched to enjoy it. Hubby is 100% Italian and I am 50%, so it feels like an essential quest to some day see the Motherland 😀

    As a devout cradle Catholic, and without going on an especially long explanation, a quickie summation of the concept of veneration of saintly relics has to do with awe inspired by respect, devotion, and the fact that these are people that in their lifetime were in some way directly touched by God–specifically through the work of some miracle. The reason for the traveling thumb, is most often for the purpose of allowing the faithful to connect with ancestors of the faith. There have been many documented cases of people being spontaneously & miraculously healed simply by touching a saintly relic. Thus sending a relic out on the road is truly a gift for the faithful. Admittedly, I would have been right on your heels for the chance to see the Saint’s head–or a thumb–or a pinky toe!

    Your photographs are breathtaking. Crazy how they make me so homesick for a place I’ve never been!

    • Thank you for the thorough explanation of the saintly relics! The traveling thumb relic makes total sense now. 🙂

      I do so hope you and your husband make it to Italy some day. I don’t think it’s at all crazy that you’re feeling the pull to the Motherland. I feel that way about many places for many different reasons. We’re drawn to what we’re drawn to and there’s no craziness in that.

  6. Pingback: The Incorruptibles | Liv Rancourt

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