This year wasn’t my first time seeing the Chestnut Festival, but through the years, I have never made it to the Palio.
First things first, What on earth is a ‘Palio’ ? Those who have heard the term generally know of it it in connection with the famous ‘Palio di Siena’, which is a horse race. But Palio is really a term that can be used for any kind of competition in Italy. The word Palio itself refers to a large banner that acts as a trophy for the winner of whatever competition is being held. In other words, the Palio is the prize, not the contest.
Soriano’s Palio, unlike that of Siena, is not a horse race. Instead it is a half-day event that is made up of an archery competition and a jousting competition. It is one of the main events in Soriano nel Cimino’s Sagra delle Castagne (Chestnut Festival).
During the festival, the town divides into 4 ‘contrade’ districts, each with their cavalier and archer that will compete in the Palio.
The contradas are ‘San Giorgio’, ‘Rocca’, ‘Trinita’ and ‘Papacqua’. This year, San Giorgio swept the competition. Luckily, Paola’s family belongs to San Giorgio. Actually, Paola’s father was one of the founders for the festival, and he was the president of the San Giorgio contrada for years. Still, I lived in the Papacqua district when I lived in Soriano, and our rentals are all in the Rocca district. That said, I had a 75% chance shot at being connected to victory!
The opening event of the festival is the ‘Blessing of the Cavaliers and Archers’, during which the cavaliers ride (and archers walk) into the main square in a grand procession, accompanied by their districts trumpeters and drummers, all followed by a magnificent parade of villagers in medieval dress. They take formation in front of the cathedral as a priest blesses the competitors and the opening ceremonies commence.
On the day of the Palio competition itself, thousands of people march down to the fields where the event will be held to cheer for their their respective contradas.
The even begins with a round of archery, followed by a round of jousting for rings. Naturally, this is 2007, so the cavaliers are not jousting one on one. Instead, they ride a course that is marked with a series of poles. Each pole has three rings of different size. They are scored based on how many rings they get, how big those rings are, and the speed at which they maneuvered the course.
With the second round, the archers take more distance and the cavaliers get a second shot at their remaining rings, again judged by ring count, ring size and speed.
A third and final round puts the archers at a greatly increased distance, and the cavaliers that their last run around the track in an effort for the perfect score.
When it is all done (It lasted about 5 hours), all of the scores are tallied and the contrada with the highest combined score wins this year’s Palio.
From that point forward, the losers go home deflated, while the winners parade all the way back to town for an evening of extreme celebration.
The event is strongly felt in the town. Emotions run deep. I watched losers in tears and winners rejoice at their supremacy.
I have to admit, I started out really not caring, but with all of the tension in the air leading up to the event, I found myself really excited, too. It was truly a blast!