I was born in the heat of July in a dusty arena packed to bursting with roaring spectators, each of the 17 contrade in their own section and flying banners dating back to the Middle Ages. I was born to the sound of hooves pounding the packed earth, and the blare of trumpets amplified by the walls of Il Campo. I was born at the Palio, in the medieval city of Siena. It was 2008.
Before I left for my summer abroad, I felt a range of emotions. Excitement, nervousness, giddiness, fear… I’d dreamed of traveling, indeed I’d studied International Business in hopes of traveling for work someday, but the only country I’d visited outside my own was Canada — not exactly an international experience. What if I hated it? What if I couldn’t handle the pressure?
Fast forward to that scorching hot day in July. We hadn’t even been in the country a week, and everything was new. The architecture, the language, the people, the food, the wine… and now this. The Palio di Siena. An epic horse race which takes place twice a year, held in the very town square we stood in as all the residents packed in to watch the spectacle. And spectacle it was.
People hung out of windows and sat in box seats built into the walls, packed bleachers around the rim of the square, and massed in the very center of the track — a sweaty, roiling press of bodies. Above it all loomed the old clock-tower, dwarfing the surrounding buildings.
The Corteo Storico flowed into the square, an explosion of color as each contrada entered in costume, accompanied by standard bearers, infantry, cavalry, clergy, and even a triumphal chariot bearing the fluttering flag of the Palio. Musicians marched with the procession, beating drums and playing silver trumpets as the whole pageant moved from Il Duomo to Il Campo.
Then, the race. Ten jockeys. Ten horses. Ten contrade.
An explosion boomed in the square, signifying the race was about to begin. It was a short affair, but frantic: three laps around the square, with nearly anything permissible. Jockeys whipped their mounts relentlessly, and even targeted their opponents (horses AND jockeys) to gain an edge.
FUN FACT: The race is won by whichever contrada’s horse crosses the finish line first. No jockey required.
The crowd roared as the horses thundered around the trek, and again when one of the jockeys tumbled from his mount. The energy was cathartic, and I could feel the excitement thrumming in my bones.
Then, it was over. Istrice, the victors. Those waving the porcupine flag did so proudly as the other contrade swallowed the bitterness of their defeat. The city itself would remain in a state of revelry for the week to follow, each contrada throwing a massive block party within the confines of their district.
It was exhausting. It was consuming.
And it would set the hook for my burgeoning addiction to travel.
Washington is where I’m from. Korea is the place I fell in love with. But there in Siena, during the tumult of the Palio, was where my soul was born.
It was the birth of a wanderer.
How about you? Where did you first fall in love with traveling? What made that destination and that experience so special? Tell me your story in the comments below!
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