I started to write this blog right after the event, but I decided it really needed pictures to tell the whole story. By the time I figured that out, I had many other things to say. So now, I have finally gone back to write the 3 month old story of the Ferrara Palio.
Every year Ferrara celebrates its history with a Palio. Normally there is a week of events leading up to the event including a giant parade through town and medieval games and flag throwing. The event itself includes 4 races: boys and girls run about an 800m race, and then there is a bareback donkey race and finally a bareback horse race.
This year, because of the earthquakes, everything is off schedule. Ordinarily this week of festivities is in May. They already did the week of festivities; they just did not complete the race. It was reschedule for Sunday the 17th of June. We were able to view this 400+ year-old tradition.
We went to stake out seats about 2 hours before it began, there is plenty of room for everyone and we are remarkably close to the race. I expected more people to be there- tailgating or something, but no one was. So we gathered and talked as the people began to arrive.
Then the parade started- I was amazed! No one was making a big deal of this parade- all I had heard about was the actual race. There was already supposed to have been a parade so I did not expect this. There were knights and bands and people dressed as Renaissance royalty. There was even a devil guy with wings. It was amazing.
After the main portion of the parade was a bit of a show. The renaissance celebrations have a lot of flag throwing. When people first spoke of the flag throwing, I think I pictured a javelin type event- but it is more like colorguard. We will call it the fancy renaissance roots of colorguard in marching band. It was colorful and impressive.
All this pageantry took a long time. It was well over an hour (maybe two). I was amazed the whole time. Despite the fact that it took me a long time to write this blog, I had only lived here for 8 days at the time. Everything was amazing so you can imagine the effect of all the colorful celebration.
Also, I don’t know if you can tell from the pictures, but the costumes are so great. They look straight out of the renaissance (or at least a movie set in renaissance times). Their accessories and hair-dos and even posture were that of royalty and knights.
After all this time they were ready to start the races. You may ask who the competitors are and how they are chosen. Well I do not have all the answers but I did manage to figure out a bit. The city of Ferrara is divided into sections called contradas. Each contrada has a flag and a team. Since the time of this palio I have been trying to figure out which contrada I live in to make sure I route for the right one next year, but no luck yet. I will keep asking around. It is common to all the cities in the region to be broken into contradas- I have seen it at other town festivals as well. Each competitor in the races is representing one contrada.
The first races were the young girl’s and young boy’s races. The kids were about 12-14 years old. Two of the girls were clearly serious runners. It is a fairly long track and they run twice. It was about 800 meters total so it was a bit of a distance. They did a great job. I did not get any pictures of the boys racing.
After the kids race is what Nathan and I were looking forward to. It was the bareback donkey races! I don’t know much about riding animals, but it just seems hard to do this. It was very fun to watch.
By the way, I do not remember at all who won any of these events. I am leaving all that out because really, just seeing this stuff was so crazy that I did not really pay any attention to that.
So at this point after the donkey race we started to think the event was almost over. It turns out to be more than an hour until the horses get ready. They had to treat the track and make it ready for the horse race.
As a side note, I want to talk about the track. This is a park in the town. There are really only two big parks in town and this is one of them. During the rest of year it is and asphalt track. People ride their bikes or run on it. Many teenagers hang out. There is no green fence like you see in the pictures. The city trucks in tons of dirt and then has special machines pack it down so the horses can run. They try to take care so the horses don’t get injured in this event. However, I have been told on occasion horses have had to be put down following the run. Luckily this year everyone was okay- mostly.
So back to the details on this crazy race- they do not have a gate to start the race. They have to try to get the horses in a line and then just shoot a gun. By the time they had prepped the track and the horses kept trying to get in a line things started getting crazy. It had been about 1.5 hours since the donkey race and still they could not get the horses lined up. Then- the two of the jockeys got in a fistfight while mounted bareback on their horses. The crowd went crazy! I wish I knew what they were fighting about.
Finally the horses were in some semblance of a line and the officials fired the gun to start the race. There were already mumblings that it had started unfairly and one of the contrada’s horses was way behind the line. As they raced it was so neat to be so close to the action.
Like we have already established, this crazy event has a life of it’s own. After the first 2 laps one of the riders was no longer on the horse. I did not see where he was thrown. You can see the solo horse in the next picture.
Then while everyone was realizing one of the jockeys was gone, another went missing.
They had people on the track trying to stop the horses from running around after the race was completed. One horse was relatively calm but the other ran for a long time. It was very strange. No people or horses were hurt but it was quite a scene. We were told this was not normal occurrence for the palio.
So after all the pageantry the race was over; one contrada now gets to claim victory for the year! It was a great (and crazy) introduction to Italy.