Tag Archives: Siena

The world’s craziest horse race

The Campo. Note the people standing in the shadow of the tower. It was HOT.

Next on our city-state itinerary was Siena, perched high on a Tuscan hillside. It has several claims to fame. Like Florence, its wealth came from banking, not so much trade. However, the city is situated on the Via Francigena, the ancient pilgrimage path to Rome. It was a great place for a stopover well away from the mosquito-ridden marshes in the surrounding countryside. Always a plus.

The fountain

As usual, the bus had to stop outside the town and we had quite a long walk through the city gates up to the town hall and the city square, known as the Campo. Squares don’t have to be square, and this one is more bowl-shaped. It’s an accurate simile because the city’s water supply comes from underground. The water supply was vital for Siena’s prosperity. The hill on which the city is built is full of tunnels carrying water, which was stored in reservoirs guarded by armed men. This excellent article explains how the systems worked. There’s a fountain on the Campo facing the town hall and on each side of the fountain are faucets with potable water. Yes, we drank some.

The cathedral

What was going to be the extension of the cathedral – now the walls of a carpark

Detail of the carvings

Our local guide took us along to the cathedral. There, she explained that the marble walls are actually stone clad in marble. The beautiful carvings are hollow, all to reduce weight while still looking spectacular. The cathedral is large, but when the Sienese learned that Pisa was building an even larger cathedral, they decided to expand this one. We were taken to an area now used as a carpark, but the outlines of a massive building are obvious. The intention had been to use the existing cathedral as the nave for a vast new cathedral, double the size of the current building. The project stalled around 1348 because the Black Plague decimated the city, wiping out as much as half of the population.

Siena is also known for the world’s craziest horse race, run twice a year in July and August. We visited the city a few days after the August race and there were still traces of the clay used to cover the Campo for the race. Each horse represents a Contrada, or neighbourhood. In Melbourne you could think Carlton, Fitzroy, Footscray, Hawthorn… sort of like local football teams. Each Contrada gets a horse according to a ballot, and it’s the horse that wins. The jockeys ride bareback and if they fall off (which happens a lot), if the riderless horse wins, it’s the winner. There’s a lot of pomp nd circumstance surrounding each race, all with obviously medieval origins. This little video will give you a taste of what it’s all about.

I’ve watched a few videos of the race. The horses look very relaxed and comfortable despite the crowds and the noise. I expect they’re specially trained for the event, rather like police horses. It looks like a fabulous festival, but I think I would hate to be there on the day. Far too many people. And, of course, the horses. Allergies, you know.

Hitching ring? Certainly a snake

Just one of the little shops in the narrow streets

It’s a lovely city with lots of narrow (steep) streets to explore. We passed on vsiting the cathedral (All Cathedraled Out) and found a little cafe that sold coffee and gelato. The gelato was magnificent.

After lunch we piled back on the bus and drove to a vineyard, watching a summer storm building up on the horizon. It looked like Montecatini – or the road to get there – might be getting wet. At the winery a nice young woman (why is always young women?) told us all about Chianti. First thing to know – it’s not a wine variety, it’s a district. It’s a bit like saying ‘Barossa Valley’ or ‘Champagne’. This winery made red wine, most of it merlot. We were taken to where the grapes were growing, just in time to see Roberto absconding with a couple of bunches of grapes. I’d always thought wine grapes weren’t all that nice to eat, but I was wrong. I wasn’t the only one to pick a grape or two to taste. They were delicious.

Storm over the vineyard. We saw several flashes of lightning – but it was a long way away

Merlot grapes

We were given two vintages of wine to taste, one a straight merlot, the other blended with I forget. We also tasted some of the winery’s own extra virgin olive oil, and then we headed back to Montecatini, avoiding the rain.

 

Another snippet from “Kuralon Rescue”

Siena and Jirra have made it into space in a battered little freighter called Kali’s Gift. Siena has finally admitted her grand plan is to rescue her fiance, Anton. But Jirra systematically picks holes in the girl’s bare-bones plan. Then this happens.

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Siena gulped down a large mouthful of wine before she spoke again. “Jirra, come with me, please.” She was begging, her eyes pleading. “I’m no soldier. You’ve just shown me I don’t know it all. I’ll admit I was hoping you’d come. You’d understand, surely. I love Anton. I want to marry him and have children. He’s going to die in that awful place. Please?”

Tears glistened in Siena’s eyes. Jirra felt her pain, so much the same as her own, a black hole of hopelessness. What would she, Jirra, do in the same situation, if it was Prasad in some hell hole? “Doesn’t he have family?” she asked at last.

“There’s nothing they can do. They’d be under surveillance. That’s if they’re still alive.” Bitterness colored Siena’s words.

“Siena, that bounty hunter –”

“Will follow you wherever you go. But now the trail’s muddied, yes? He won’t even know you’re going to Crossmar, let alone Kuralon. And if I have to find another ship or another pilot, they wouldn’t know me, they probably wouldn’t help me.”

With her elbow on the table, Jirra rested her chin on her fist. Her heart said do it, but her brain pleaded for sanity. She’d be walking into an unknown situation without a real plan. Suicidal came to mind. Then again, what did she really have to live for? She couldn’t have Prasad and she didn’t want anybody else. She didn’t believe in gods and religion, but she did believe that sometimes serendipity shows up and shoves you in an unexpected direction. It had happened to her when she’d accepted the chance to learn from an alien. Her few friends had distanced themselves, but she’d ended up on the trip of a lifetime, a historic trip across the galaxy to search for the Manesai’s ancestral home. The little voice in her mind sang its siren song. Follow your heart. You never know where that might lead you. Her decision must have been transmitted in her facial expression because Siena smiled before Jirra said a word.

Laughing, Siena leaped up from the table, ran around to where Jirra sat, pulled her out of her seat and hugged her so tightly she gasped. “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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