The last weekend of May is big for the small town of Ferrara in northern Italy. The Il Palio di Ferraraconsumes the residents with gala flag throwing, dancing, music, dames, knights, and sleek Arabian horses. Celebrated since 1279, to be exact, the townspeople show their true team spirit by taking part in the myriad of events. Majestic processions, games and competition are the order of the day. The fast-action Palio races are the culminating event on the last day, held in Piazze Ariostea. Mud and dirt fling across the track as horse and rider fearlessly pound the turf.
What attracts me to small towns in Italy is the spirit of pride harbored by the people. Traditions and customs from ages past remain imbedded deeply in their culture, respected and loved through re-enactments of annual festivals. I love the marching, the colorful costumes and banners, hats with plumes and dancers tossing their contrade flags. The town’s participants don costumes from the Renaissance era. They are a proud people.
What is a Palio? Most people think it is a horse race, but the palio is actually a banner or cloth cherished by the winner of a competition. They keep this banner until the next years race, where it is relinquished to the new champion. Like Siena’s seventeen contrade, or neighborhoods, Ferrara has eight districts that compete in the races, all with a true spirit of camaraderie.
Ferrara, in the Emilia-Romagna Region, is noted for its exquisitely maintained Renaissance buildings. Many of the Renaissance artists were either born here or lived here for some time. The town is completely surrounded by a medieval wall that is 9 km long and has stood the test of time very well. In fact, like Lucca, there is a pathway all along the top that is perfect for walking or bicycling. Being the home of a famous university, students and bicycles are everywhere. Go follow their bliss and rent a bike at the train station.
Every region in Italy has several Palio’s happening throughout the year. So what makes Ferrara special? For one, their palio is said to be the oldest one in Italy. For another, Ferrara is simply delightful to hang out in. With medieval walls to bicycle on top of, fantastic Renaissance architecture to walk through and admire, and artwork by famous artists to gaze upon, how can you lose?
Imagine two rival families in the same village fighting for supremacy, leading to a period of enmity for over two centuries. Not unlike the Capulet’s and Montague’s of Romeo and Juliet, the Fiumi and Nepsis families from 1300 Assisi did just that. Today it is re-enacted, although in a much more neighborly way, which culminates toward the end of the Calendimaggio.
A most worthy event, the Calendimaggio was originally an ancient celebration of Spring May Day. Today it is a three-day festival held the first Thursday, Friday and Saturday of May. Traditionally, the festival is dedicated to St. Francis, since he was known to be a poet, troubadour and dancer in his youth. Locals carry on by dressing up in lively and colorful medieval costumes while putting on three days of festivities and competitions with love songs, games and events. Groups of revelers serenade throughout the streets of town, bringing a spirit of romance and chivalry.
The long-standing rivalry between the warring families is a more recent historical addition to the festival. Deep divisions were created and hatred continued until the mid 1600’s, when the Papal Governor, Giovanni Andrea Cruciani, organized the town into three districts. As a result, the hatred slowly gave way to harmless rivalry, making the Springtime ritual develop into a playful contest between the two rival sides. Peace and Friendship celebrated the annual Return of Spring.
A Festival Queen is chosen through an animated contest of medieval games, held in the Piazza del Commune, the main piazza of Assisi. Flag throwers show off their expertise as Minstrels sing troubadours songs to the new Queen. Illuminated by torchlight, the games and contests continue.
Parades, floats, and animated dancing flow throughout the flower-strewn cobbled streets of Assisi.
The festival leads to the famous Palio, a contest between the two neighboring districts of Assisi. They are the Magnifica Parte deSotta and the Nobilissima Parte de Sopra. This event mirrors the centuries old feud between the Fiumi and the Nepsis families.
Archery, Crossbow and Chivalrous contests thunder throughout the Piazza del Commune. The two opposing sides perform amidst a spectacle of color and flurries of banners. A sporadic drumroll keeps the tension high. The grand award is called the Palio, a banner the prevailing “Parte” will keep for a year. Calendimaggio is Assisi’s only secular celebration even though the banners, at the beginning of the festivities, are blessed in the churches.
On the final eve a panel of judges, composed of historians, directors and musicologists, award the team that displays the best interpretation of celebrating the return of Spring. All done in good jest, the festivities are capped off with feasting and well-wishing. Until next May, the winning team reigns as supreme.
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“Traveling is the ruin of all happiness! There’s no looking at a building after seeing Italy.” Samuel Johnson
Like seals on a rock, people lounge across the floor of the Piazza del Campo. The bricks of the scallop-shaped piazza are still warm, adding to the sensation of sitting on the beach. Pure bliss is lazing in the sun, soaking up its last rays of the day, steeped in good conversation. The only thing missing is the ocean. What’s not to love?
The late afternoon sunlight is ebbing away as shadows begin to creep across the Piazza. Children in sandals scamper after pigeons. People stroll through, a dog leash in one hand and gelato in the other. Friends and lovers sit together enjoying each others company. Siena’s social zone picks up its pace.
Along the edge of the piazza is the promenade with many cafes and restaurants. There is a myriad of tables and chairs for diners and coffee drinkers set out in groups. Street musicians play their music while an entertainer in a red hat teases passersby to the delight of the crowd. The Campo truly is the physical and cultural heart of the city.
Our new friend, Carlos, runs the Ristorante Fonte Gaia. There he is in his white shirt and vest. One morning we helped him set out chairs before opening shop, and since then he has treated us to complimentary cappuccino and treats! What a sweetie…..see what can happen when you rub elbows with the locals?
The red-brick fan of the piazza radiates out from the facade of the Palazzo Pubblico. Spoke-like paving patterns were commissioned in 1349 by Siena’s then ruling committee, the Council of Nine, to symbolize power and the folds of the Madonna’s Cloak. Since then, it has remained the site for most of Siena’s public events, such as bullfights, executions, festivals, and the famous Palio.
Once the site of a Roman Forum and later the central market place, the Campo is surrounded by buildings that haven’t changed since medieval times. The facade of the Palazzo Pubblico, built in 1288, concave’s inward to accommodate the curve of the Campo. Originally the town hall, today it still houses the town administration.
The Torre del Mangia (tower) was built to rival the tower of the neighboring town of Florence. When the Torre del Mangia was built around 1325, it was the tallest structure in Italy at over 290 ft.
The entire urban center is extremely well-preserved.
The Palio, a breakneck, bareback 90 second horserace, occurs twice a year. Originating from medieval times to represent each of the 17 Contrade of Siena (neighborhoods), it still remains highly competitive. Siena’s pride and joy, it draws a huge crowd every year. During this time, the Campo is transformed into a racetrack and turns into a dynamic swirl of activity.
Seated on a tiny balcony outside a third story pub with the best view of the Campo….
Watch out for James Bond! He could be jumping out a window and scrambling across the awnings at any moment. He has done this in the Campo before, you know! Remember the movie “Quantum of Solace?”
Well done, James.
Sadly, it’s my last night in Siena….I stand with all my senses working overtime. I don’t want to ever forget the magic of this place. I am polarized between two worlds, the medieval architecture and atmosphere so rare to find, and the culmination of modern-day Italy evidenced by the tourists. The sights, smells, tastes, sounds, and feel of this medieval city soak into my being, flooding my mind with colorful memories. Siena will remain with me always.
Ristorante Fonte Gaia, Piazza II Campo 121, 53100, Siena,Italy, Phone: 39 0577 281628