Thursday, January 26, 2012

Palio di Siena

The reason I went to Italy was to see Siena's Palio. It's a horse race, dating back to 1656, that is run around the town piazza. One estimate that I saw for the crowd said 50,000 people attend. The crowd gathers in the centre and the horses race around the outside.

It's an absolutely surreal event. While it seems like a tourist novelty to us, the locals treat it with deadly seriousness. Siena has 17 contrades (neighbourhoods), 10 of which get to race. Winning is a prestigious achievement for a contrade and the jockey will be famous.

We were lucky enough to have a local to show us around and she bought us scarves supporting the Pantera (panther) contrade. Emotion is running high enough on the day that it was recommended that we hide our scarves when walking through parts of Siena belonging to rival contrades, lest we be harassed. I'm a fuckin' panther - do I look scared?

This is where the inside knowledge really paid off. Our awesome guide took us to a Pantera church and managed to get us in to see the blessing of our team's horse. That's right, they lead the team horse into a crowded church for a blessing. This doesn't do a lot to change my opinion of organised religion.

The Pantera horse: Colla. I don't speak Italian, but it sounds fast.

The horse looks like he's had a few $50 ice creams of his own

The head of the contrade in his best Sunday armor

The horse is then led in a procession to the piazza.

It's a race where cheating is acceptable. For the week before the race, the jockey may sleep in the stables to protect the horse. Contrades with strong horses may bribe the weaker teams to impede their rivals and jockeys will whip eachother during the race.

The race itself is only seconds long, but it is preceded by a procession of 600 people in medieval costumes. This takes most of the afternoon and there is no shade in the piazza. It is baking hot. At least I wasn't wearing tights and a steel breastplate.

The Palio itself is the black and white banner on the ox-drawn cart. It is the prize for winning.

The mounted police prepare to do their ceremonial gallop around the track:

One of the final groups to complete the circuit was riders in closed helms. They represent the riders who have died.

Part of the procession is made up of pairs of men with the team flags doing choreographed moves. They throw the flags to eachother in high arcs.

Finally, the procession ends and the horses begin to line up to race. There is a set order that the horses must approach the starting line, and the race cannot begin until all the horses are lined up in order. This can take another half an hour, because the last horse has the ability to prevent the start and force all the others to begin lining up again. He will have been bribed, and will continue upsetting the start until he sees an advantage for one of the others.

Finally, the race began and in a flash it was over. Chaos broke out. The Pantera horse was last and the Pantera jockey vaulted off the horse and ran with the contrade members in pursuit. If they caught him he would get a beating for losing.

The supporters of 2 contrades began a large rolling brawl in the crowd. We were told to hide our scarves again to avoid being targeted. I saw one bloody guy being carried away by the medics.

Everyone turns to look at the brawl:

At one point everyone around us began running, so we ran too. It was an interesting experience of crowd mentality.

And of course, the winning contrade began celebrating their win:

So, that was something.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

James and the Giant ... Ice Cream

This gets a post of its own.

For me, the main reason to go to Italy is gelato. Renaissance blah, Pax Romana blah, palio blah, the bottom line is they know how to make damn good ice cream.

In Florence, I went into a shop and ordered a 2-scoop gelato. The lady asked if I wanted small or large. I, predictably, said "large". I guess this was a tourist trap. The woman began piling more and more ice cream onto the cone as I stood and gaped. It ended up about the size of my head.

Out on the street, people were openly laughing at me. It was hot, and the ice cream immediately began to melt. I had streams of the stuff running down to my elbow.

My Arm Hurts

I made a pretty strong effort at eating it, but eventually the last few litres went in the bin. I'm not saying exactly how much the fuckers fleeced me for, but it was in the realm of NZ$50. I'm philosophical about the experience. If I'm going to have my money unscrupulously taken, this is probably better than being stabbed by a skinhead.

Travel to Italy: Pisa Piss

In August, I flew to Pisa. For a big name Italian place, it's fairly scruffy and average. There's this bit, and not much else. (And I didn't want to say anything, but their tower is a little wonky).

The town was quiet except the bit around the tower. There, every idiot with a camera was doing that shot when they pretend to be holding the tower up. Clods.

It was a public holiday, so everything was closed. I wandered around and took photos of doorhandles and stuff.

In the evening, I wandered down to the river to snap some of my standard night shots. Running along the edge of the river, there was a rat the size of a labrador.

Was that a Gouda Bike Tour? No.

Back in June, I did a bike tour in the Netherlands. It was my third trip there, and both the previous ones were blinders so I had no reason to suspect this wouldn't also be great.

It wasn't.

To catch the Friday midnight ferry, I have to get my bike on a train at about 7:30, but I was stuck at work until about 6:30pm. I dashed home to grab my bike out of the garage and my helmet fell off the handlebars into a pan full of oil that my flatmate had drained out of his car's sump several years ago. It vanished into the black with a "gloop" noise. For the next week, my head smelled of old motor oil.

Because I had been working late all week, I also had no time to do any planning. I knew I going to start by heading for a town called Breda, but that was about it. It turns out, successful bike touring requires a bit of preparation.

Also, and this was the key factor, this was one of the worst ever summers in the Netherlands, with tons of rain and little sun. It poured down unremittingly and was freezing cold, and after spending a week squatting in my tent reading a textbook about Roman archaeology, I gave up and took an early boat home. Sure, I may be soft, but the Travelling Two also bailed on their summer tour in the Netherlands, and they are bike touring badarses, so you know it was dismal.

I took very few photos because of the rain.

Gemeente Heusden. Translation: It's Going to Hose Down

It wasn't entirely terrible. The first day I rode down through Rotterdam, where I had the experience of taking my bike down an escalator and along a bike-only tunnel under the Rhine. I camped for a couple of days outside Breda (it never stopped raining so I never actually made it into Breda).

From there, I did a day trip into Eindhoven on the mistaken assumption that a big city like that would have something of interest to see. Okay, the bowling pin art was cool, but I needed a little more than that.

I then biked up to Vught, which is a little south of 's-Hertogenbosch. I have no idea how that is pronounced. Where do you look in a map index for a name beginning with an apostrophe?

I then continued north to Gouda. I walked into the centre of Gouda with the intention of having a meal with Gouda cheese in it, but when it was time to order, I forgot.

The day riding to Gouda was probably the most fun, because it required catching a bunch of ferries to get across various waterways. I suspect those waterways did not exist prior to that "summer" weather.

If you look closely, you'll see I'm carrying a fuel bottle. I took my stove and cooked my own meals for the first time, which was satisfying. Of course, there's something to be said for buying food, too. A takeaway pizza is more exciting than self-cooked pasta and sardines.

That's a Gouda Town Hall

From Gouda, I biked to Delft along pretty country roads. I knew from my first trip that I could camp at Delft, but I phoned the ferry company and they were willing to bring my departure forward to that evening, so I pushed on and made it to Hoek in time to catch the ship home.

So there you go: Disappointing, but still more fun than anything else there is to do. These things are relative. Oh, and feel free to ask me anything about the archaeology of ancient Rome. I am a fucking expert now.