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When in Siena...

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

In 2011, my best friend joined me and my family on a trip to Tuscany. Once we landed, we were immediately escorted to The Palio di Siena. For those of you who don't know about it, The Palio has been around since the 17th Century and the Sienese take it very seriously. This bi-yearly, bare backed, horse race takes place in the town square and as you can see thousands of people come out to watch. Luckier ones have a view from their balconies and can watch from their homes as they not only root for their "contrade" ( or district), but more importantly route against their enemies. Medieval flags wave around the perimeter of the horse track, while families don their family crests. When a contrade looses the race, the household goes into a deep state of mourning unlike anything I have ever seen. Just think of your beloved, college team loosing the final game after decades of never even making the playoffs. It's kind of like that...times a thousand.

The Palio can be brutal to watch because as you can imagine horses often get injured, smash into the walls of this tiny ring in the town square as people become agitated and rowdy. But despite the discomfort and my disdain for anything that can harm an animal, watching The Palio was also an extraordinary experience and a day I will never forget. I have never felt more embroiled in tradition and culture as I did that day. I could picture this event taking place in the 1600's and other than people's attire, it probably looked identical. We were lucky enough to be invited into one of the family homes overlooking the square to watch and be a part of this Medieval ritual.

However, much like I felt when I tried to watch a bull fight in Spain, I found it difficult and uncomfortable to embrace or understand defenseless animals getting hurt, people fighting and families mourning the loss of one race. It seemed so outdated and hard to comprehend in the 21st Century. The beauty and serenity of Tuscany with its rolling hills covered in vines, rows of Cyprus trees and the most extraordinary art in the world is juxtaposed by this wildly competitive, dangerous tradition. But tradition is culture and has been a cornerstone of the Sienese society for hundreds of years.

I decided to write about The Palio because for me some of the most memorable travel experiences have been witnessing these traditions, even if they may be uncomfortable. Whether I agree with, understand or identify with them, it brings an awareness that I could never get from a book in a classroom or a story another person shares through their own lens. There are several great TV shows airing these days which really highlight this subject like Yellowstone or The Crown. Do we respect or honor a tradition even if we don't agree with it? Should they continue even when they are no longer relevant in today's world?

I know one of the main reasons that my parents made such a point to travel with us as children was that they felt it was the greatest form of education and exposure. It opens your mind in a way no other experience can. The next trip you take, I highly recommend seeking out the local traditions, pulling up a seat, and opening your mind to whatever feelings it may inspire. You know what they say about growth. It only happens when you're uncomfortable.

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