Il Palio di Siena, a four-day cultural sporting extravaganza, culminates in the world’s most thrilling horse race. Lasting a mere 75-90 seconds, it is the climax of a fiercely competitive all-consuming year-round rivalry between the 17 contrade (districts) of Siena. In Siena, your contrada is a part of your DNA. It courses through your veins. There’s a saying in Siena: you first belong to your contrada, then to Siena and then to Italy. You are baptized into it, you eat, sleep and breathe it. And, it’s best not to marry outside of it! Each contrada comes complete with its own symbol (e.g., Eagle, Giraffe, Unicorn, Turtle, Dragon), motto, church, traditions, and flag.
Leading up to the race, sweating crowds mob the Piazza del Campo as processions of the Contrade bedecked in armor and silk transform the city into a spectacle right out of the Cinquecento. Flag bearers perform extravagant displays of waving, throwing and twirling to the sound of military drums and trumpets.
The race begins as the sun drops low. The anticipation and tension is palpable. Consisting of three laps around the one-third of a mile track that outlines the Piazza del Campo, the course is treacherous and steep, with tight corners that the jockeys must navigate at full speed bareback. The thunderous sound of hooves is barely audible over the roar of the crowd. Like Garfunkel arriving without Simon, a horse can triumph without a rider (and this happens as spills come hard, fast and heavy). The contrade pay their jockeys handsomely to ride for them, yet these jockeys are hired guns from outside Siena . . . and fundamentally unfaithful. Everyone is a potential double agent. Secret negotiations abound.
Last July’s winner was Giraffe; they wept with happiness and celebrated as is tradition by sucking on pacifiers or drinking cheap wine from baby bottles to symbolize rebirth. Meals commenced at huge tables set up in the streets. The festivities ran all night. The prize, not the race, is technically the palio — a large painted banner specially designed for each year’s races (there are two, one July 2nd and the other August 16th) by different artists. Contrade proudly display their winning palio banners in their museums with the real prize being a year’s worth of bragging rights!
These incredible images of the July 2019 Palio (cancelled this year due to COVID-19) are courtesy of Biordi Art Imports of San Francisco. Biordi’s exclusive line of Palio Contrade dinnerware is hand-painted by a father and his two daughters living in Siena who carry on their family’s artisanal tradition. Browse Biordi’s exclusive line of Contrade Dinnerware here. Receive a !0% discount using the Promo Code Contrade10, good thru 7/31/20. I LOVE this line and collect dessert plates and espresso cups & saucers which are fun to mix and match.
Ah, the Isle of Capri, as in Sinatra’s tune from his “Come Fly with Me” album. A playboy’s and playgirl’s paradise known for its marina, piazzetta of fashionable sidewalk cafes, and “Capri pants” of the ‘50s and early ‘60s—made a fashion sensation by Grace Kelly. But take a public bus just three kilometers to the other side of the figure-eight-shaped island to the higher elevations of Anacapri and you’re in another world. “Ana” is a Greek prefix that means “above” but it could just as well mean “hidden” Capri.
Located on the slopes of Monte Solaro, Anacapri offers walking and backpacking trails that lead to rocky pine-and-brush covered terrain where residents still scratch out vegetable gardens and lemon groves amid the sunlight and fragrances of the Mediterranean.
You’ll also find a nineteenth-century architectural beauty: Villa San Michele. Swedish physician Axel Munthe built his villa on the ruins of an ancient chapel dedicated to Saint Michael, with the desire that it be as filled with Mediterranean light as a Greek temple. And indeed it features a loggia, pergolas and columns leading to a magnificent circular viewpoint overlooking the Bay of Naples. Munthe lived there for fifty-six years and created a sanctuary for migrating birds on Barbarossa Mountain. Today the villa remains as it was when he loved and lived in it; you must visit if you have not done so already.
Also not to be missed is the Chiesa Monumentale di San Michele, a jewel of Baroque architecture that’s one of the most delightful small churches in the region. Its simple white exterior keeps its charms modestly hidden inside where you’ll discover a hand-painted majolica tile floor with a splendid representation of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from a luxuriant Garden of Eden.
But the walking and picnicking, with views everywhere of Mediterranean macchia and white-walled houses spilling over with bright purple-pink bougainvillea, is for me the joy of Anacapri. And should you continue climbing—or just take the funicular—ah, the views from Monte Solaro!
One of the world’s greatest museums (and a favorite of mine) is the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. With over three million objects from antiquity, its collection is packed with Roman empire treasures excavated at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, including stunning mosaics and colorful frescoes and the fabulous Farnese collection of classical sculpture. I am always amazed by how few visit this extraordinary museum. If you love art and archaeology, it’s a must, and a MUST for anyone who visits Pompeii or the other sites. It’s like stepping into another world.
The bright pink museum is located in one of Naples’ graffiti-adorned neighborhoods. The building was originally a cavalry barracks, then the seat of the University of Naples. Charles III of Bourbon established the museum, then known as the Real Museo Borbonico, to house the antiquities bequeathed to him by his mother, Elisabetta Farnese, and to showcase the dazzling discoveries unearthed at Pompeii and Herculaneum that he funded to advance the prestige and fame of his Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.
A couple of surprising facts about the museum: it has an excellent collection of Egyptian artifacts (second only to Turin’s phenomenal Museo Egizio, the world’s oldest Egyptian museum). And, if you still aren’t convinced . . . there is one more secret (literally) for you to uncover here. The museum has a ‘secret’ room, known as Gabinetto Segreto, which has a large collection of erotic art and relics from Pompeii. Initially the room had restricted access to those of ‘mature age and known morals,’ but was finally opened to both men and women in 2000; in 2005 it was officially installed into the museum’s permanent gallery space.