SIENA’S PALIO: THRILLING TRADITION, COMPETITION, & PRIDE

Imagine that your hometown team will be competing in the biggest sporting event of the year, as it does every year, right in the center of town. Pack the venue with over 50,000 spectators, both local and international, all there to see your team participate. Now bring on all the fanfare and hoopla in the days leading up to the main event, including an open-air feast and a ritual blessing of the key player. Now imagine that this monumental sporting event lasts just seventy-five seconds…

Palio Aug 1995 news

For the people of Siena, Italy, this fantasy is a reality. Considered Italy’s most famous annual sporting event, Palio is a horse race that combines pageantry, competition, and civic pride. The Tuscan hillside town of Siena fans out from the central, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo town square, where the race is run. It extends outward, through the maze of cobblestone alleyways, stone houses, shops, and smaller piazze. Siena is divided into seventeen contrade, akin to the boroughs of Manhattan, in which neighborhoods aspire to a passionate regionalism based on centuries old tradition. Since the Middle Ages, ten of the contrade vie one another for bragging rights achieved by a victory in a bare-back horse race that’s one lap around the piazza. The first horse to cross the finish line, with or without the rider, wins.

The race, held twice a year on July 2 and August 16, is preceded by as much pomp and circumstance as the post-race victory parties. Participants and spectators have been brought to their knees over a loss, or a win. Every stage is critical, from the initial presentation of the horses, to the “tratta” in which the horses and jockeys are matched. It continues with the five preliminary runs, to the final rehearsal dinner, to the blessing of the horse and jockey inside the contrada’s parish church, and finally to the race.

Palio July 1981

I attended my first Palio with my dad when I was ten years old. With my Aquila scarf wrapped securely around my shoulders, I cheered parade flagbearers marching down the ancient cobblestone streets while my gelato ran down my arm. We watched a trial run. Serious business, as men in suits converged to hash out the players’ worth, similar to a football draft, only with horses. My favorite part was the pre-race dinner. I couldn’t believe that with all the eating, the drinking, the singing, and the cheering, they had yet to run the race! Though we missed the main race, I’d experienced something truly memorable.

Palio Aug 1995

Years later, my husband, Jamie, and I made it to the big event. We packed into Piazza del Campo with my cousins in early morning…and waited. For hours beneath the August sun, the piazza filled with spectators, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, or peering out from hotel windows overlooking the track. Fans from competing contrade would argue, laugh, make bets, and proudly wave their flags’ colors. At dusk, the tension was palpable. The crowds roared as the horses cantered into the piazza. The tradition of centuries past, and the competitive spirit roiling between the contrade, and the anxiety built up over days of preparation all came down to a race lasting just over a minute. In one mad dash around the track, colors blazed past us in a blur. Men, women, and children shouted and chanted the names of their contrada. Cameras flashed. Hoof-beaten dust flew into the humid Sienese twilight. I don’t remember who won. But I bet it was Aquila.

Like a good thriller, Palio’s suspense builds to a satisfying climax that resonates with fans until long after it ends. Want to live the thrill? Head to Palio. Want to read about it? My latest mystery novel, FORMULA, features Palio, and it’s coming soon!

“Bocce, Anyone?”

Bocce is a competitive sport, a strategic game, and a leisurely pastime, all rolled into one ever-popular activity. Dating back to the Roman Empire, bocce, in all its derivations, has since captured the hearts of players and spectators the world over, no matter the age or skill level, where the objective is to roll balls on a court as close to a target ball as possible to score points. And, if you peek into some of the backyards or parking lots of local hangouts across America, it seems the popularity of bocce has recently shifted into high gear.

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I have fond memories of running through my grandparents’ backyard as a young girl, tossing the tiny white pallina through the freshly mown grass of summer, while the adults chased after it with their teams’ heavier, larger, red or green balls in hopes of scoring points during a weekend pickup game in my mostly Italian neighborhood in South Buffalo, NY. Friends and neighbors would join in on the fun all day, some recounting how they used to play in their local piazza back in Italy. It was a chance to be together, and to catch up on each others’ lives. And no matter how old you were, it was an opportunity to forget life’s pressures and just play outside with your friends.

My husband, I later learned, did the same thing as a kid in Lawrence, Massachusetts. So, a few years ago, when my parents gave us a bocce set for Christmas, we decided to carve out a corner of our own yard for a court. When the ground thawed, we hooked some railroad ties together with rebar, and we spread some stone dust on a scrap of yard under some trees–instant bocce court! (Here’s a link on how to build your own court and how to play.) Now, every summer we pull up a few lawn chairs for our family, neighbors, and friends, and we roll out some fun. Our children are outside, getting fresh air and exercise, enjoying friendly competition with their buddies–they think it’s cool. Who am I to tell them it’s old-fashioned? Actually, it’s very cool these days. While still a regular fixture at many senior centers and public parks, now bars and restaurants are sacrificing parking space and rooftop accommodations for bocce courts because the demand is so high. Move over darts and billiards, bocce’s in town.

Major League Bocce is an organization, founded in 2004, that promotes bocce leagues for sport and fun across the country. Check out their website or Facebook page for locations around the country. The United States Bocce Federation, established in 1977, is the preeminent organization that sets the rules, promotes the sport, and establishes guidelines for players on the countrywide and international levels. This year, the Methuen Sons of Italy, Lodge 902 is hosting the 2015 U.S. Bocce National Championships, June 22-27. For the first time ever in New England, the championship will host over 150 elite bocce players in five different events over the week. If you think that you’ve got what it takes to compete with the best, or if you simply want to join in on the fun of watching the best, be sure to check it out!

Bocce’s come a long way, and now, more than ever, it appears that future generations are guiding it along to a thriving tomorrow. Perhaps soon, “Bocce, anyone?” will become just as likely an invitation as any other.