Contrade of Siena


“It's as if the city is sliced into 17 pieces of pie," Mikael tells me, pointing up to the flags adorning each building several stories above the street. We're dodging the crowds as we exit the bustling, ancient city of Siena. From the building to our right shines the yellow flags of Aquila, the Eagle; the adjacent building across the narrow intersection just ahead sports the vibrant reds and whites of Giraffa.

Mikael wears his yellow, green and blue Bruco scarf for team Caterpillar as he walks us to the van that will reluctantly whisk us away from Siena on this electric evening. Ours is one of 35 pickups he's coordinating with drivers, helping Siena's visitors navigate the night.

We're all in town for the final rehearsal of the Palio, an ancient horse race that takes place each July 2 and August 16, pitting one neighborhood, or contrada, here in Siena against the next. On a night like tonight, every damn one of us wishes we were local. Locals here hold onto a fierce, lifelong loyalty to the contrada of their birth. That's to say they might root for a different team than their siblings or parents, but that's part of what makes this rivalry so intense and joyful.

I peek through the curtain on a narrow street in giraffe land as we trek out of town. Through the curtain, I see a table that appears to be hundreds of feet long stretched down the middle of the street. A red tablecloth, white glasses and dinner plates stretch as far as the eye can see, awaiting neighbors on the eve of the Palio, with each contrada hosting its own banquet.

I place a high premium on meals with neighbors. In my world, this means I value the little Sunday evening potlucks that have sprung up in our Washington, DC alley on balmy nights. I love the baseball gloves and scooters and balls that come out for the kids as they run through our little corner of the city, with trashcans blocking the alley from cars. But meals with neighbors have taken on a whole new level of wonder since I peered through that curtain in Siena and saw a table awaiting the entire contrada on the eve of the ultimate expression in neighborhood pride.

It's been over a year since I walked through Siena on the eve of the Palio. It's been more than a year since we leaned over the railing overlooking the Piazza del Campo and saw the children stream in, singing passionately before the jockeys representing each contrada took their final practice run. By God, it was only a dress rehearsal I saw that summer night, and I've never seen anything like it.

When venturing this way, I travel with a crime novelist and a food writer. My companions, my family members, are equally obsessed with this city and its rituals. Imagining tales of intrigue tangled throughout these dark streets comes naturally, as does savoring every last bite of its food and honing in on neighborhood identity and the power of place. Siena is understandably the optimal backdrop for our topics of choice. 

So it's no surprise that we've returned to the city since, forever pulled back, each in our own way, by the power of the Palio. We were there earlier this summer, our latest visit a few days after Drago claimed victory in July, dining on the lively street, fondly recalling our days here and plotting those still to come. 

Today I awake far from Siena, back home in Washington, DC. Last night on Capitol Hill, families were outdoors after dinner, moseying on bicycles, chatting, anything to hang on to these final weeks of summer. It's a good remedy for city living, these neighborhood nights.

I can only imagine the scene tonight in Siena, thousand of miles from home. Tonight it's the eve of the Palio and Siena's ancient traditions are well underway. I can feel the electricity in the air halfway around the world. I'm rooting for Onda.