Sunday, October 12, 2014

Once upon a time in Siena.

We were lucky to be in Siena to witness the magic of the Palio this year.The Palio is a horse race that is held in Siena on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August every year.

How did it all start? Here is a short children's story inspired by what I saw. It's in the style of a legend and completely a figment of my imagination.

I would love for you to read it aloud to your children:)

How the Palio came to Siena?

Once upon a time in the beautiful land of Siena, all the horses gathered in the city centre for an emergency meeting.

 A crisis was upon them.

Just the previous day, the humans had proclaimed
that they were the new lords and masters of the land.
The humans had declared with their drums and their trumpets,
"We shall rule over the land of Siena and all the animals will serve us starting from the sunrise of the
First day of July."

This announcement sent shock waves through Siena. How could the humans do such a thing?
Humans and animals had lived together as equals since time began. Nature had decreed all creatures to be equal and the Earth belonged to all. All the creatures enjoyed the bounty of this blessed land and cared for it with love and a sense of duty.

The horses weren't too happy about this 'take-over'. They took the lead and met by the Tower in Piazza del Campo on the Last day of June to find a solution to this problem. All the other animals of Siena came too. They were the Eagle, the Snail, the Panther, the Tortoise, the little Owl, the Unicorn, the Ram, the Caterpillar, the Dragon, the Giraffe, the Porcupine, the She-wolf and the Goose.

The oldest of the horses was called Palio. He was very wise. He told all the animals gathered by the Tower that if they tried to resist, the humans might punish them with whips or worse.

'True. True.' cried the Eagle who had spotted a human whipping a horse in another land a few moons ago.

A murmur of concern turned into a clamouring of panic as none of the animals gathered by the Tower had ever heard of humans being cruel to any animal before.

'My friends,' breathed the Dragon, 'In my 108 years, I have seen humans in other lands being cruel and mean. They hit and kick and torture animals for food, fun and sport. I decided to settle in Siena and retire here because I thought that the humans here would always treat us as equals.

The animals debated and discussed.

Plans were panned out.


Nothing seemed foolproof.

All their lives, the Caterpillar and the Snail had observed the humans closely and knew just how clever they were.

Their plan had to be cleverer.

Their plan had to feel as soft as the Goose's down but act as sharp as the Porcupine's quills.

The Sun would be setting soon. The animals still hadn't reached a decision. There wasn't much time left as the humans' decree would come into play with the next sunrise.

'I have an idea', neighed Palio with a serious face, but his wise old years could not hide the smile that had started to spread across his wrinkles.

When the animals heard what Palio's idea was, an instant cheer broke out-
'Hurray! Hurray!' shouted the animals.

The Ram trotted a fox trot and the Giraffe shook his booty. The poor Caterpillar was about to do the caterpillar when-

the little Owl hooted, 'Quuuuuieeeeetooo hoo everyone! Or the humans will get suspicious.'

Loud cackling simmered down to soft giggles.

The idea developed into a plan.

The animals had to work quickly. Their plan had to hit the target like a Ram's horns-
 strong and precise.

They split into teams and started working.

The Panther and the Eagle sped to the Forest and told him about Palio's plan.
The Forest was impressed.

The Tortoise and the Goose called all their friends to pass on the plan to their friend,
 the Wave (daughter of Ocean) to help the animals, too.

The plan had to be executed that very night before sunrise.

The she-wolf watched the moon and kept time, while the Unicorn raced towards the horizon to calculate how much time the animals had before the sun would rise.
The Giraffe kept watch- this was a human-free zone.

There was no time to lose and no scope for second chances.

Will the plan work? Will they turn into humans' slaves with the next sunrise or enjoy the freedom of the blessed land of Siena like Mother Nature had intended?

What do you think?
What was their plan?

Well, it was a simple plan.

Palio had suggested that the animals deliver a message to the humans in their dreams.
You see, when humans dream, they can understand the language of the animals- they become one with Nature and her creatures and they listen. But when they wake up and get busy with making money, they forget how to listen to Mother Nature and can no longer understand the animals or their own Universe.
Palio knew this when he thought of his clever plan.

Each animal had chosen a human and it was this animal's job to make sure that his human received Palio's message in their dream so that when they woke up the next morning they would remember the message but not the dream itself.

The Forest sang a beautiful lullaby for all the humans to sleep that night.
Each leaf rustled a magical tune to help the humans slumber into sound sleep.

The next morning, the First morning of July, the Wave used her friend, the Seashell,to send out a siren of wake-up calls full of the magic of the Ocean so that the humans would wake up
fresh and happy-
forgetting the dream, but remembering the message.

But, what was this message?

What do you think happened that night?

No one knows for sure but the animals of Siena live happily with their humans to this day.

The humans act like their protectors instead of their masters.

You don't believe me. Do you?

Come visit Siena and you will see how much the humans of Siena love all these animals.
Yes, even the Unicorn.

They even organise a race to honour the horses and their friends every year and guess what the race is called?

Il Palio or the Palio.

When you visit Siena, you will see that the entire city is decorated with flags showing all the animal friends of the horses- the Eagle, the Snail, the Panther, the Tortoise, the little Owl, the Unicorn, the Ram, the Caterpillar, the Dragon, the Giraffe, the Porcupine, the She-wolf and the Goose. Even the Tower, the Forest, the Wave and the Seashell have their own flags.

These flags represent a 'contrade' or an area of the city. The humans who live in these 'contrades' are extremely passionate about their flags, the colours of their flags and the horse who represents their 'contrade' in the race.
So much so, that the humans of these 'contrades' can think of nothing else but the Palio (the race)  all year round- in fact all their lives.

The horses run the race but do you know that a horse can win a race even without its rider?

Not only that, the horses do as they wish. They sometimes don't even finish the race. They run backwards. They throw their jockeys off. They get up to all sorts of mischief and yet all the humans cheer for them and clap for them and when one race is over, they start preparing for the next race.

One can almost see the horses giggling their hind legs off; having the last 'neigh'!

What do you think that message in the dream was?

While you think, let me share some evidence I collected when I visited Siena in July this year- evidence to prove that the plan worked.

The flags of the Contrades...

the Wave

the Forest

I don't know what this flag represents. I clicked it as it was fluttering:)

the Giraffe

The She-Wolf Scarves

And this is how the Palio came to Siena.


The Palio is indeed an experience of a lifetime. We hadn't planned to be there as I hadn't heard of the Palio before we landed in Itlay. Our trip was fluid and based on finding the most interesting route around Tuscany. As luck would have it, we ended up in Siena around Palio day.

Piazza del Campo

We happened to be in Piazza del Campo when the police started putting up barricades and the many restaurants serving food outdoors started packing up their tables and chairs. We realised that by staying on we would be able to watch the rehearsal. It was stunning. The race was over in less than 4 seconds as most of the horses finished the race without their jockeys. Scary. I have never witnessed anything quite like it- EVER!

The energy of the people throbs the city. To draw a comparison with my Indian upbringing- it's the kind of energy one feels in a parade ground on Dusshera day or while visiting Pandals during Durga Pooja. You have to be there to feel it. The cobblestone streets of Siena vibrate with the  baritone and bass singing of the supporters.  The colours of the contrades and the passion of the people sweeps you into a frenzy with a gusto even when you are just a visitor.

These men burst into an impromptu singing session because a couple of people (perhaps unsuspecting tourists) passing by were wearing the 'other' contrade colours. This had a knock on effect and other groups soon joined in. It was barely lunch time...a good five hours before the rehearsal!

The next day, I was able to convince my husband (not the kids who stayed back) to visit the Piazza for the last rehearsal before the Palio. So this was the evening of the 1st of July 2014. The Piazza was already heaving and at 5 feet 1 and a 1/2 inches, I could only see the tops of people's heads.

So, I decide to venture away from the action and walk the empty streets of Siena. This is what I found: Contrades dressed up for street parties to be held after the race. It felt like I had won a back stage pass to a West End show:)


Just imagine the scene when the party gets going. 

The window in this shop was getting ready with the jockeys ...on your marks....get set....

As usual, my eyes were drawn to windows and doors and the camera followed...

We finished our walk with the best Espresso Macchiato served by the kindest folk in Siena- at Nannini's. I was blown away by how welcoming the staff behind the counters were despite being super busy. To top it all, while we stood holding our macchiatos, they served free snacks to all the people squashed inside watching the race on the screen.
It must've been my lucky day. I saw the city and didn't miss the race. Yipee!

As this post has become unusually long, I'll share some other useful details about Siena in my next post.

Let me end with a few links that will give you the TRUE reasons for why the Palio is held in Siena:-

Let me know what your children thought of the story.

Hope to see you soon. xx


  1. Nice story. Have to read to A, will let you know her reaction.

    1. Thanks Seema:) Would love to get A's feedback. xx

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