Sunday Saunters

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The Elderhostel program dedicated both morning and afternoon of Sunday to instruction about The Palio, a traditional horserace among contestants from Siena’s 17 ancient neighborhoods. The weather had cleared, the topic itself didn’t interest us as much as others and after four heavily programmed days, Jan and I conspired to cut the morning classes and wander the city with the Michelin Green Guide as our instructor, hungry for exercise and some unpredictable adventures.

Fortified by an extra café”a shot of espresso costing 80 cents that not only wakes you up but works as a mood elevator gulped at one of the ubiquitous bars–our plan was to circle the city on top of its wall. When that proved impossible, we followed its base to the fortress built by the conquering Florentines to control Siena in the middle sixteenth century. Its presence explained the hated Medici coat of arms mounted on the City Hall that we had puzzled about earlier. Why that symbol of enemy domination hadnt later been removed, given the bitter rivalry between the two cities continuing to this day, remained a mystery.

We came upon swans and geese in a grotto in La Lizza park–deserted this early in the morning”some impressive old oaks, a charming merry-go-round that made us miss our grandchildren, and lovely prospects from the ramparts of the fort. As the city slowly filled with people in the late morning we entered the Cathedral of San Domenico. This is another huge temple of several stories built into a hillside only minutes away from the Duomo. There we joined large crowds of Italians who had come to see a reliquary containing the head of St. Catharine, the popular patron of Siena, and gory frescoes depicting various tortures and martyrdoms painted by an artist with the intriguing name of Sodoma. Our exchange of sardonic remarks was interrupted by an extraordinary harmony emerging from the far end of the nave. We followed it to a group of ordinary-looking working men standing in a semicircle, their eyes intent on the hands of their conductor, their faces transported by the sound of their own perfectly blended voices ranging from countertenor to bass. They sang two short hymns and then faded into the crowd of tourists and pilgrims.

We continued our saunter, looking for a bookstore to get a map of local footpaths to plan our day-off country excursion and got sidetracked into the vestibule of the Papal palace by more unusual music that came from a man taking advantage of the cavernous acoustics playing Persian sounding melodies on the flute and accompanying himself with a foot-pedalled harmonium.

After lunch we rejoined our group and were led to the Goose district–one of the neighborhoods or Contrada–by a professor who specializes in studying the institutions of the Palio. The last race took place back in August, but this was the night that the victors of the Tower district would be celebrating with a banquet hosting 4000 people, most of the planned festivities centering on ridiculing their opponents, especially the Goose. Our lecturer pointed out that the neighborhood was deserted. On this weekend the losers got out of town. Nevertheless he had secured permission for us to enter their chapel and museum, filled with frescoes and inlays and paintings juxtaposing the Goose totem with the Virgin Mary and with St. Catharine, who had been born in that district, and displaying all the “Palio” or flags of victory that the district had won over several centuries. Rival neighborhoods hated each other almost as much as Sienese hated Florentines, and intermarriage between them was still considered a serious transgression. Our lecturer told us that this neighborhood solidarity accounted for the fact that there was practically no crime in Siena”an embodiment of the maxim that “it takes a village.”

His enthusiasm, expressed in a two hour harangue that followed the two hour lecture we missed in the morning, was less than infectious. We were eager to resume our independent exploration of the city by following our map to the Osservatore”a church in a rural setting on top of a neighboring hill, but as we descended a steep cobbled street Jan’s knee suddenly gave out and we taxied back to the Hotel. She felt better with ice and a few Advils, but it looked as if our ambitious hiking plans might not materialize. I decided to keep exploring in the hour and a half still remaining before our late Italian dinner, and let the map mislead me through two beautiful ridges and valleys filled with vineyards, olive groves, old rural villas, and a palace within a mile of where we were staying. At one point the only way I could get off private property was by pushing through a thick hedge ten feet down to a dirt road. As I tumbled out there was a ten year old boy on his bicycle looking at me in disbelief. We tried to communicate, I by pointing to the map, he by chattering at full speed in Italian, but finally, he remained behind watching me trip off into the sunset.

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