Palio Obsession in Siena, Italy

Siena, Italy is known for its landmark, Piazza del Campo, a famous town square and a UNESCO world heritage site. I take a behind-the-scenes tour of Bruco Contrada, or the Caterpillar District, which is one of the 17 Siena wards that takes part in the Palio (race).

Up until now, I am unfamiliar with the contrada culture and how dynamic it is. A contrada is basically like a district, often made up of nothing but a few streets. Established in the Middle Ages for military reasons, now the contrade are simply areas of localised patriotism, celebrations of every important event including baptisms, deaths, marriages, church holidays, victories at the Palio, even wine or food festivals.

caterpillar contrada siena

One has to be born in a contrada to be a member of it. Someone who buys a house, gets married or moves, does not get a membership into the contrada. This can be confusing because, say if you were born in the caterpillar contrada, your wife was born in the giraffe contrada, and your child is born in dragon contrada, then all three of you have membership to different communities. The members of the contrade meet weekly, so each person has to celebrate important events (like deaths, births, etc) only within one’s own contrada.

Each contrada is named after an animal or symbol and has a long history, and complicated set of heraldic and semi-mythological associations. We enter the home of caterpillar contrada, which looks like another home from the outside. A newly renovated establishment with modern decor, looks nothing like ancient culture to me. However, there is a chapel, museum, garden, kitchen and hall.

Bruco (Caterpillar)

600px Giallo e Verde listati di Azzurro con quadrato Rosso.PNG Bruco is situated to the north of the Piazza del Campo. Traditionally, its residents worked in the silk trade.
Bruco’s symbol is a crowned caterpillar crawling on a rose. Its colours are green and yellow, trimmed with blue.
Bruco is one of only four nobile (noble) contrade; its title was earned in 1369 by its people’s bravery in helping to defeat Charles IV, and consolidated in 1371 when they led the revolt to replace the Sienese council with a people’s government.
Its Sede is at Via del Comune, 44.
Its patron Saint is Madonna (Visitation of the Saintest Mary) and the Titulary feast is on 2 July.
Its motto is “Come rivoluzion suona il mio nome” (As revolution sounds my name).
It is allied to the Istrice, Nicchio and Torre contrade and not officially opposed to any other contrade since its animosity with neighbouring Giraffa (giraffe) ended, formally, in 1996.
Last victory- 16 August 2008. It has 37 official victories.

palio costume

One of the members, Dario, gives me a tour of the community center which houses the Bruco’s Palio trophies and costumes. He gives me a brief history of how the Palio came about and why the Italians are still so passionate about it. We touch upon every detail about the horse racing culture: horses are assigned by lottery; jockeys are hired based on their desire to win; each new costume designed is worth 5,000 euros; money is raised by the residents of the contrada; transactions are made offline; and parties are thrown all week. It is incredible to realize that there are millions of euros and years of planning that go into a 90-second race.

siena palio

The Palio di Siena (known locally simply as Il Palio) is not just a horse race, it is an annual event which involves the entire community’s hearts, minds and preoccupations for years. The race is actually held twice each year, on July 2 and August 16, in Siena, located in the heart of Tuscany. The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, who has a church in Siena. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary. 

palio of siena italy

Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city wards. The race itself, circles the Piazza del Campo, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. Crowds cheer and emotions run high. From children to seniors, everyone in the contrada is rooting for his jockey to win.

palio silk painting

The winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race. The enthusiasm after the victory, however, is so extreme that the ceremony of attribution of the palio is quite instantaneous, being the first moment of a months-long celebration for the winning ward. There are occasional outbreaks of violence between partisans of rival contrade. More than the palio, the bragging rights against the economy contrade, calls for weeklong celebrations. The winning ward hosts a nonstop party with free wine, food, and music.

A Week at a Tuscan Villa

Have you dreamed about renting a villa in Tuscany or going on a food tour in Italy? Both of these have been on my bucket list for quite sometime and it was a dream come true when I received an invitation from Luisa Donati and Nancy Krabill, who run tours in Tuscany and Le Marche, Italy. More details about the tour in another post. Here I share my experience staying at a real Tuscan Villa.

tuscan villa Sienna

I was picked up from Maria Novella, the main train station in Firenze and we drove off into the Tuscan countryside. We passed by Chianti area, stopped for a brief look at San Gimignano (a small Medieval town), and went through beautiful hills of Siena. An unmarked sign led us into Montestigliano, a privately owned farm estate spread over 2475 acres. We drove into a long narrow pathway with cypress avenues, olive groves and fig trees till we reached Villa Pipistrelli.

Villa Pipistrelli is a magnificent 17th century Tuscan farmhouse restored with modern day amenities while maintaining the architectural integrity of Tuscan countryside architecture.

Villa Pipistrelli Tuscany

The ground floor of Villa Pipistrelli has a cozy living room, dining room, spacious kitchen, two master bedrooms with attached baths and a laundry room. Staircases lead up to the second floor which opens up to another sitting area and three more rooms with baths and a balcony overlooking the olive groves.

room at villa in tuscany
The two large master bedrooms seemed perfect for couples as they had king size beds, high ceilings, wood floors and oversized tubs. I stayed at the smaller one in the corner which had exposed beam ceilings, lime washed walls in soft colors and  touches of modern Italian design in the bathrooms. It felt like I had stepped back in time sleeping on  antique carved bed adorned with floral bedsheets, yet having the luxury of modern living.

The living area is the communal gathering place where guests enjoy a glass of prosecco, chat about their day and connect home with WiFi internet. A fireplace constructed from the original rocky foundation of the home becomes the cherishes spot on chilly nights.

Our meals at the villa reflected home cooked Tuscan cooking using only farm fresh ingredients. We had a local lady come in to cook breakfast, lunch and some dinners at the villa’s rustic open kitchen.  Handmade tagliatelle Bolognese, spinach and ricotta nudi, baked ziti, tiramisu, crostata and other specialties cooked with olive oil, pecorino flour and ham sourced within 0 kilometers enhance the flavors of simply prepared dishes.

breakfast at Villa Pipistrelli

We would enjoy breakfast of fresh baked pastries, eggs, fruit and coffee indoors and lunch al fresco in the patio.

dining room at Villa Pipistrelli

There is nothing more relaxing than enjoying a delicious authentic Italian meal during pleasant spring time temperatures on a quiet farm in Tuscany. One of the aspects I liked most about this trip was that the members of the Donati family (including Luisa, her brother and her daughter) would join us for the meals. It was a more personal experience to eat with the locals and be able to talk to them about everyday life in Italy.

dining area at Villa Tuscany

Outside the villa is a quaint garden and infinity pool (open seasonally) with a backdrop of rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eyes can see. In fact the nearest village is about 30 minutes walk so its not likely you can see or hear any traffic during your stay.

morning mist at tuscan villa

There are plenty of paths to go walking, hiking or biking though. Some of the gusts would wake up early morning to take photos of the rising mists in the hills. I enjoyed long evening strolls trough the canopies of trees and often got lost on the lush property.

walking in Tuscan CountrysideI walked through the olive groves and tasted the Montestigliano brand of olive oil in the food I ate everyday. It was spicy and rich, unlike any other table olive oil I have cooked with before. The olives start growing in the summer and in November, guest can help with harvesting. If anybody is interested in learning more about the working of the farm, Massimo Donati, the family farmer, is eager to give lesson and even host a blind olive oil tasting at the farm’s granary.

Montestigliano olive oil

Montestigliano has several other properties right on the property that were a few steps away from our villa. At one time, the entire place was a working farms and the Donati’s had the farmers living in these homes. Now the homes have been renovated and converted into property rentals. There is Villa Donati  – Casa Luisa – Virginia 1 – Virginia 2 – Casa Marta – Casa Adriana – Ropoli Sopra – Villa Pipistrelli, each of which is equipped with multiple bedrooms, private baths, living rooms, kitchens and lots of view of the Tuscan countryside. You may rent a room, a villa with your friends, or the entire estate, as people do for weddings and special events.

pizza dinner in TuscanyThe common kitchen also prepares special dinners, happy hours and pizza nights where one can socialize with other vacationers. I happen to be in Montestigliano during Easter so the family prepared a special meal for all of the 80 guests staying on the premises that weekend.

family dining in Tuscany

How much does a villa rental in Tuscany cost, you may ask. Prices start at only 700 Euros per week (2 bedrooms at Casa Damiano). A total of 70 beds are available at Montestigliano, and the prices differ by the size of the houses. Villa Pipistrelli rents for 7,400-9,900 Euros per week and accommodates 10 people.

Receive 30% off 1 week and 50% off 2 week rentals at select properties in Tuscany with discount code TUSCANVILLA. For more information or to make a reservation click here