Roosters, Rhinoceroses and Chianti

16 July 2013

A day out into the Tuscan countryside today. But first, good morning from Florence:






The bus ride to Siena took about 75 minutes and, on the way, our multi-lingual guide Irene (pronounced eye-rain-a) gave us a rundown on the history of the area.

It seems that Florence and Siena have a long-standing rivalry that began with a horse race. A long, long time ago, before the boundaries of Florence and Siena existed formally, some bright spark decided that a horse race of sorts would be the best way to decide who got what. Each settlement would nominate a horse and rider, and both teams would — commencing at the rooster’s first crow in the morning — gallop full tilt towards the other settlement. Where the two horses crossed paths would be the boundary between Florence and Siena.

However, the dastardly Florentines were not above a bit of skulduggery. For several days before the big race they starved their (black) alarm cockerel, so he was very hungry. On the morning of the race, he crowed very, very early — well before daybreak, and well before the Sienese’s white rooster — and the Florentine rider got a head start (and hence Florence is bigger than Siena!) To this day a black rooster is still used to identify products that originate in Florence.

Chianti is the predominant wine grown in Tuscany. To be a real Chianti, a wine must contain at least 80% Chianti grapes — ie those that are grown in one of the (I think she said) seven wine-growing regions of Tuscany. At lunch we tried a wine that falls into the designation of Chianti Classico. To my uneducated palette, it tasted like what we call pinot noir.

But Siena’s main claim to fame is a horse race that takes place twice annually: on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. On these two days (for about the last 800 years or so) the area around the main square is filled with about six inches of dirt to make a horse track, and 45,000 people pack themselves into the middle to spectate. Here is the square (or most of it — I couldn’t back up enough to fit it all in one shot!)

Off to the left you can just see the area (outside of the posts) that is filled with dirt. It is maybe 20m wide.

The contestants in this race are members of one of 17 “contrada”. “Contrada” is an Italian word that does not have a direct English translation, but the best I can do is tribe, or iwi — but not based on familial lines. Every person born in Siena is baptised into one of the 17 contrada — so each contrada has its own church; a contrada is with you for life.

The winning horse doesn’t have to cross the finish line with a jockey on board — the horse qualifies as long as it still has its contrada plume on its head.

Each contrada has a name and an animal — the more exotic, the better: rhinoceros, porcupine, silkworm, for example — and an accompanying logo. We were able to visit the church and small museum (albeit briefly) of the Selva contrada. (This, we were told, is quite an honour, as no outsider is allowed to enter the hallowed ground of a contrada unless they are invited — and not all tour groups get to see inside. I am not sure of the truth of this, but it was interesting all the same.)

Before the big race, the horse is brought into the church through a special door, and is blessed. (They have a special dispensation from the Pope to allow animals in church — apparently a no-no if you are a Catholic.) If the horse poops in the church, that is a sign of good luck!

The contrada’s church.

Accompanying the race festivities is a procession in traditional costume — which is very thick and heavy, and are worn with wool tights. Remember, this is in the middle of the day in the middle of the Tuscan summer — over 30 degrees most days. How they don’t pass out is anyone’s guess!


The winner of the race (three laps of the square) gets a special flag. Every time the race is run, a new flag is designed by someone from Siena. The winner gets to keep (and display) their flag for ever. This is the winning flag from 2 July:


Aside from the important horse race (need to find its official name), Siena has a beautiful and gigantic cattedrale, designed by Pisan architects. The black (really dark green) and white marble is a symbol of Tuscan identity as well (Paolo told us it represented the ‘life breath’ of Florentines; there were other suggestions that it represents the black from the Florentine rooster and the white from the Sienese rooster of legend.) Regardless, it is striking. (And really hard to photograph in a very dark church where no flash is allowed and you only have 10 minutes!)


The church is truly huge (and its original design was much, much bigger — but the outbreak of plague put paid to its realisation). I don’t have the ability with just my iPad to stitch images together, but these two give an idea of scale.



The rest of the inside is spectacular. More time would have been nice.



For lunch we had the option of fending for ourselves or paying an extra 15 euro for a set-menu lunch at a local restaurant. Dave and I chose the latter, as it was an opportunity to try some traditional fare. For starters, some toasted bread with different toppings: olive oil; Tuscan mayonnaise with parsley; olive oil and tomato; and salami. Then a small bowl of vegetable (bean) soup; a small plate of thick noodles with traditional sauce; then a whopping great chunk of pecorino cheese with a very thin slice of pear for dessert. Washed down with some of that Chianti. Very nice! And it was neat to chat to some of our fellow travellers: a woman from Canberra in Florence for a month while her husband completes a sculpture course; and an (ex-Mormon) couple from Utah: he retired, she working with high-value clients for Wells-Fargo, and an ultra-marathon runner in her spare time!! A very interesting lunch.

We had some spare time in Siena to look around — or shop, if we so pleased. Unfortunately, both Siena and San Gimignano have been made into virtual shopping malls, with high-end outlets and souvenir shops packed into the world-heritage-status 13th century buildings on both sides of the main streets. Lots of leather.

Back on the bus I did some UCM (unintentional camera movement) photography, that actually ended up looking quite painter-esque…


… and then we were at the medieval settlement of San Gimignano.

Remains from an Etruscan settlement establish San Gimignano’s origin to the VII–VI century BC. Around 450 AC the city took the name of San Gimignano. The best image of San Gimignano is most certainly depicted from the medieval period, witness to the birth of its splendour and charm; thanks to its position along the Francigena route. The city is known for its towers, of which remain only 14; however in 1300, there were no fewer than 72. They are the results of competition, among the most influential families in the city; the higher the tower, the greater the prestige of the family. With the plague of 1348, the urban development that had characterised the previous two centuries came to an end, bringing with it the town’s independence as a “Free Commune”.

A faithful scale model of the town as it was in the 1300s has been made by a small team of committed individuals. The Latin documents from the era were painstakingly translated into Italian, and the model has been made according to the specifications in those documents (when dimensions were measured in forearms.) It’s pretty cool.



We could have paid some money and fought through the crowds to climb the 500 or 600 steps to the top of the tallest tower to look at the view, but we were too lazy: it was really, really hot! So I took some snaps of the view from a more accessible viewpoint. (If I could come back, I would do so at one of the ends of the day for good light, and then make the effort to climb the tower!)


And then were were off home…


…via one more quick stop for a wine / olive oil / balsamic vinegar tasting. (The balsamic infused with truffle flavour was divine!)

Laundry expedition tomorrow, and we may brave the queues to climb up Brunelleschi’s dome.


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