It was a warm, sunny, convertible-ride sort of day in late March. We drove through rolling Tuscan countryside, enjoyed a superb lunch in the garden at La Grotta near Montepulciano, and found our way to the small town of Torrita di Siena for the annual Palio di Somari — donkey races.
(Torrita di Siena is completely different than the city of Siena, 40 miles away).
Nearing the piazza, the air was filled with the aroma of fried bread (frittelle). Fortunately, lunch was sufficient.. but I confess I was tempted. Colorful flags, each representing a different contrada (neighborhood), hung from windows and lined the streets.
We entered a long, arena-like piazza with a narrow oval sand track confined by short, movable barriers and, Larry estimated, 5,000 people in the bleachers. Who would have guessed so many people would be curious about donkey races? But it seems this particular tradition represents decades of intense rivalry between the neighborhoods, so no citizen of Torrita di Siena would miss it. Spectators wore scarves and shirts of their contrada’s colors. While a donkey race seemed frivolous, even comedic, to me, it didn’t take long to realize these citizens take this contest very seriously.
A long medieval procession opened the Palio. Each contrada (of eight) was represented by a “nobile” couple, several children, drummers and flag bearers, and an old man carrying an ancient book — all in historic costumes. We never did figure out the book, but we imagined it was a record of each neighborhood’s history or residents.
With great fanfare, the races began! Donkeys were led in by jockeys, each a resident of a neighborhood and dressed in the contrada colors. The first race was two donkeys running twice around the track, with plenty of room side-by-side. The jockey’s strategy was obvious… get the beast to run on the straightaways and cut off your opponent on the turns. Three additional two-donkey races followed, eight donkeys in total.
After a half-time of flag-throwing contests, speeches and another procession, it was back to the races. Vendors worked their way through the crowd with drinks and more fragrant fried dough.
Jockeys rode without saddles (as in the famous Siena horse Palio) and did their best to spur the beasts faster and faster, to steer and to stay on. Most entertaining was each donkey’s willingness — or unwillingness — to run. Very few galloped, most trotted with their jockey’s bouncing like crazy, several only walked and a couple balked altogether. The crowds chanted and cheered, or groaned in a single voice if their jockey and donkey lost.
Finally, there was a winner — Contrada Porta Nova, the jockey in black and white — appreciated by uproarious applause, more pageantry and long speeches. My favorite jockey wore red and black. He was among the first winners, but lost the final race. Fortunately, he was comforted and congratulated by hundreds of loving neighbors.
It was almost dark when we left. Giving up on the shuttle and deciding to walk, we got lost finding our car. But I always say: getting lost in Italy is just part of the fun.