It’s hot. Parched, and yet dripping, I’m pent up like a pressure cooker. My children are whining, I have a headache, my husband has not been seen since he left us at the city gates to find somewhere to park the coach. Nobody here speaks my language, yet they chatter incessantly.
Cheeky looking wenches laugh at my little boy with his blond curls, pointing at him – he’s different, not from around here. He doesn’t need to open his mouth to tell them that. Our clothes are alien, and although we wait like they do, it’s in a different manner – they know what is coming, but we don’t.
Some men stride towards me, mail clinking, leather crunching, smelling like polecats. They are armed – two with bows, one with a mace and the other with an axe. “STAND BACK”, their leader says. He knows my language – he doesn’t bother to speak to me in his own. Finally my husband runs up, swooping in for the little one, and bringing him into line before the big man does it for him. Then, the horns begin. The pierce the fetid air around us like an icy blast, and then are themselves interrupted by the canons. The children cower at the wall, hands over their ears, eyes squinted – both shut for shock, and open for curiosity.
We are in Citta della Pieve, in the commune of Perugia, somewhere around the middle of the sixteenth century. We have wandered into the red and blue district, Terziere Casilino, clergy people, although the women certainly don’t look like nuns, and the men are not looking at them as monks should. The whole scene puts me in mind of Fergie singing “Be Italian” in Nine to the altar boys. Although everyone is fully clothed, in fact, one may say, overly clothed in this weather, there is a Latin raunchiness in the air that suits the setting. It’s the Palio or summer festival, where the three districts of the town meet and compete. But first, there is a parade – a puffing of chests and a stamping of feet, something akin to a narcissistic bull getting ready for a fight, and it’s hard not to get swept up. It’s wonderful. Passionate. Colourful. We follow the marchers for a short time. They are moving slowly, preening, chatting, sweating in their velvet. But then we hear gunshots ahead, and we run
Ahead, the Borgo Dentro parade, the mayor in the lead, and the aristocracy of town following. Their parade seems larger – if not in size, then definitely in importance. The men strut like black and yellow cocks, chests forward, shoulders back, noses in the air. The infantry fire muscats every ten metres, and the smell of battle fills the air. Then the horses come, unperturbed by the dissipating gun-smoke, trotting as proudly as their masters. Here comes oxen – tall as horses and twice as heavy, now the executioner, his face almost visible behind his hessian head-cone. And then the teenage girls, dressed like ancient roman vestal virgins in white with floral wreaths in their hair. Finally come the sweetly-adorned tots, strung between maids more simply dressed and carrying samples of the summer harvest in baskets on their hips. The children are divided – they smile and wave or cry and cower.
When the gentry have passed, finally the rabble can arrive, and Terziere Castello enters the fray. And rabble they are. They juggle, play lively music, dance, shout, laugh, breathe fire and congregate in a disorderly manor. Their horses shit on the cobblestones and they dance on through it, having too much fun to care. We follow the procession through to the church square. Here the spectators are thick, and everybody stops. We can’t get through. The people here are louder, we can’t figure out why, and then the first snowball hits. Within moments, we are all covered in flour, as are the tail end of Castello, and everybody else in the vicinity. A court jester stands at a cart handing out bags to children, and those young at heart, and within five minutes, the square looks like it is in the depths winter.
The front of the parade has moved into the arena and the crowd is also thinning on the streets, and filing into the bleachers. The trumpets are tooting non-stop now, and the drums beat, heavier and heavier, faster and faster. The crowd beat their legs in time, and finally, there is action. The games are about to commence.
Palio is one of the best, but not the only parade of its kind in the Umbria and Tuscany area (links to festival listings). There was one in Volterra on the same day, both culminations of a longer summer festival. “Palio” translates as “prize”, and is not the only, or most famous event by that name. It also applies to the famous Siena Palio horse race, where the 17 “contrade” compete twice a year. It’s quite a spectacular.
We ate at Hotel Vannucci, well worth the visit, both for it’s excellent regional food and it’s leafy elegant garden. We stayed at Tartagli Bassi, in Paciano, about 20 minutes drive through beautiful countryside.