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Italy 2008 Trip Blog

August 12, 2008
Here we are in Tuscany!

Dear friends -
Once again we are on the move! This time to Tuscany with my granddaughter Jessica. We arrived in Florence a couple of days ago - safe but a bit tired. We spent 2 days on our own in Florence and then we joined a National Geographic Family Tour. We are staying at Castello di Gargonza, which is a meticulously restored castle tastefully converted to a beautiful hotel.

We will be staying here as a base and travelling around to various parts of Tuscany. Tomorrow we go to Siena to see the preparations for the Palio - the annual horse race that has been going on since the thirteenth century. Then we will return to Siena for the actual race, Renaissance costumes and all!

This is short this time. More to follow in future days.

By the way, if any of you who are receiving this travelog would rather not, please reply and let me know, and poof, you are gone!

Love from Italy,
David & Eliza

lots of scooters

Hotel - Castello di Gargonza

Cathedral Square

Another Florence Church

Street Musician

Florence Pigeon

Central Market

Florence Cathedral

August 16, 2008
Castle, Siena & Palio

Dear Friends -
Count and Contessa Guicciardini are our hosts at the Castello di Gargonza. Now 86, he has been the prime mover, both physically and financially, behind the restoration and conversion of the magnificent space, a stone village & castle, with wall and tower, we will live in for most of the remainder of our journey. The Count and Contessa are both delightful and welcoming people. We spent the better part of an afternoon and evening with them and it left us wanting more! Normally they would spend more time with the National Geographic family group, but they are off to the birth of their 16th Grand-child.

As promised, Wednesday was spent in Siena. (Another hot and challenging day for yours truly!) The walking tour of the city was a fascinating trip through the middle ages, mixed with the Gucci generation.

The entire city is decorated with the banners of the 17 Contradas (neighborhood city-states).There are 17 Contradas in Siena, and 10 of them will compete annually in the Palio (horse race). Although this race has been run annually since the middle of the 13th Century, some of the rivalries have run hot and heavy for centuries. Some of the Contradas actually act as if they were at war with each other - They are born in their Contrada, baptized, confirmed, married and buried in their Contrada. The rivalries are much like those between the Capulets and the Montagues in "Romeo and Juliet". The Palio is a always dangerous - and sometimes violent affair.

There are several sides to this historic event. Everything is done to "level the playing field". As I said, there are 17 Contradas but only 10 will run in the Palio each year. 7 of the Contradas will be the 7 that didn't run last year and the other 3 are chosen by lot. The day we spent in Siena was the day the horses were assigned. All the horses come from a famous horse raising area and are, once again, assigned by a public drawing of lots. The pictures of the square with thousands of people in it is the gathering for the assigning of the horses. The young men from each Contrada march into the square singing loudly - proclaiming themselves to be the best ever and huge cheers go up when your Contrada gets assigned a horse with a known reputation for speed or other characteristics of value to this short race. (The race is only 3 laps around the square - which is actually shell shaped - and lasts only about 90 seconds!)

All sorts of skullduggery take place in the buildup to this race. Bribes of as much as $50,000.00 and more are paid to gain advantage. Your Contrada may have drawn a bad horse or you may not have much money in your Contrada's coffers to be able to do what is necessary to win. Since you figure you have no real chance to win, you might accept a substantial bribe to run another horse into the wall at high speed - or even apply your whip to, not only the horse, but to another rider. There is much more that I won't be able to share at this time, except to say that this year has the unusual situation of three pairs of extreme "enemies" are entered in this Palio - so it is almost guaranteed that sparks will fly!

Peace and love,
David, Eliza & Jessy

First look at the Castle Tower

Views around the Castle (4)

Count and Contessa Guicciardini

Winner of the annual "Stump the Count" contest w/poster of the Castle

Crowd beginning to gather for assigning of horses

More crowd

Definitely a fan! (of the Selva, or forest, clan)

More crowd

Lots were drawn and this is the posting of the assignments

Dear friends -

Well, as seems to be normal when traveling in foreign lands, I have been unable to send email for over a week. It turns out that the ISP's we have been trying to use see my email program as SPAM and won't send it. Oh well! I am now using Earthlink's WebMail and we will see how it goes. However, since this is our last day, this will be a Reader's Digest edition of what has happened in the last week! We will start with the Palio.

Whoops - The internet at the hotel in Florence went down so I am trying to get this together as we arrive back in Aptos - after 23 hours in airports or airplanes. Wish me luck! BTW, I am sending the photos without captions, although each one has a title attached. If this is confusing, and you want to know more, please reply and I will help you sort it out when I am not travel weary.



I can easily say the the Palio is, far and away, the most spectacular event I have seen in my entire life! There were 30,000 people in the center of the shell-shaped track. The track is cobblestone for the non-Palio portions of the year. For the Palio they lay down a hard dirt track (see photos below) that is several inches thick, tightly packed and baked by the Tuscan sun. A sturdy fence is erected to contain the 30,000+ who will gather there to view the spectacle. The steep grandstands are erected for the event (sardines have much more wiggle room!) and the seats are numbered by section. These seats and the people crowded at the windows and roofs of the surrounding buildings, add another 10,000 to 20,000. The energy level and the noise are rising to a fevered pitch.

Because of the crowds, it is necessary for us to be seated in our ticketed seats for about 2 hours before the ceremonies began, which was about 4 hours before the race was scheduled to begin. The parade of the Contrade was spectacular (I seem to be using that word a lot!). Each of the Contrade (neighborhoods) marches in their own segment, carrying their own banners and flags, wih their own drummers and with their jockey riding a large stallion. Following the stallion (with the one exception of a horse from the Dragon Contrada, who was too spooked to manage in the parade!) was the horse that will race under the colors of this specific Contrada. The horse was being held in check by a handler who talked and cajoled the horse to keep him calm. (see attached pictures)

Each Contrada had their own pair of coordinated banner bearers who kept the banners moving and flowing constantly while their Contrada proceeded around the shell-shaped track. They would jump over each other and each others banners and throw the banners high into the air, exchanging them with each other. Amazing! The first ten Contrade were the participants in the race and the final 7 were the fixed participants for next years Palio. One interesting observation was that these are the same faces who were here doing this 500 or more years ago - the same faces we have seen in the same costumes in the paintings in the museums. Hollywood could not cast and costume a period film as well!

After the Contradas came the "Palio" itself - a banner newly designed each year and presented to the winning neighborhood. It is drawn in a cart by 4 white oxen, whose sole purpose in life is to perform this honor. Every month, a drummer goes to the field where they graze and plays a tattoo, so they won't get spooked by the drums and trumpets on race day.Finally, after the parade is over and the track swept, the horses and jockeys, now in racing gear, enter. A hush falls over the enormous crowd as the post positions are announced - cheers for the good spots, sighs for the outside positions. Since the outside spot farthest from the center is at a disadvantage, that horse gets to make a running start from behind the starting line. This horse's jockey, from the Dragon contrada, kept the others and 50,000 people waiting by deferring his start until everyone was wild. There were three false starts, pushing the starting time as dusk fell up till 5 minutes before the race would have been cancelled.

Finally it began. Dragon's jockey was unseated and trampled at the second curve. The horse kept on running all three laps and finished third. Caterpillar's (named for the silk weavers' guild) horse came up from behind and won the race in under three minutes. The crowd surged onto the track before the race was over to greet the winning horse and jockey. A Caterpillar contrada member, running out of the center onto the track, was trampled by the riderless horse at full gallop, then by the winning horse (he only had a concussion and will live to tell his grandchildren). The jockey was carried over the heads of cheering, weeping fans into the cathedral. We followed the crowd through Siena's medieval streets down to our waiting bus and on to dinner on a terrace overlooking the city under a full moon. As we feasted and debriefed, a shadow moved over the moon - an almost-full eclipse! Just in case it hadn't already been a magical day to remember!

This will be our last email from the trip. As we pack for our trip home, we leave you with a snapshot of our final venture - a tour of Florence by Segway! Segways are those incredibly cool, 2-wheeled vehicles with a gyroscope inside that balances you. This was Very Big Fun, including the general admiration of the crowds we passed. A little scary at first, it really does become quite quickly instinctive. After three hours, it was all I could do not to cut and run with mine to the Boboli Gardens (Eliza)!

We will try to get you more pictures and stories of this wonderful journey with our granddaughter, Jessy, but, better yet, come to Aptos and get the full treatment - slide show, stories and our inimitable charm and wit - plus a great cup of coffee!

Eliza, David & Jessy