Palio di Asti, Asti, Lombardy Province, Italy
It begins at night; as darkness falls around the old streets of Asti crowds gather in San Secondo square, children jostle for the best position, families pick up slices of pizza, judges take their seats, the sound of drums and trumpets approach the square. This is the Palio of the flag-wavers – a precursor to the main race. Marching bands and Flag-wavers representing the various neighbourhoods of Asti will enter the main square and demonstrate their skill at waving and catching the flags, at the end the judges will vote a winner.
That was the Friday night, throughout Saturday the horse riders will do trials, getting to know the course, as well as a parade with children dressed up in costume. Sunday is the day of the race, the Palio of Siena, in Tuscany may be more famous, but Asti’s palio is the older (Siena’s dates from the 17th century). It has been run every year since the 13th century (bar a 30 break in the 20th century).
Before the race, and every bit as fascinating, is the procession of over 1200 people in authentic medieval costume through the streets of Asti, accompanied by marching bands. As I crouch in front of the crowds I see Knights in armour, beautiful maidens, ornate carriages, prisoners in penance, oxcarts and priests. They make their way from the cathedral to the race track in Piazza Alfieri, performing a lap of the course before taking their seats.
The traditional contest sees 21 thoroughbred horses, (ridden bareback,) compete representing the districts of Asti. They will race in 3 heats on the Sunday afternoon, with the top 3 from each heat making up the final 9 to race the final. Just getting a race started is an event in itself – the horses are not started in stalls (as used in most horse racing since 1965), but just behind a rope, the starter encourages the riders into position and doesn’t give the order until everyone is lined up – sometimes this took 20 minutes to achieve! The other significant difference from modern horse racing is the fact that the riders are all riding bareback, without a saddle the jockeys are more likely to fall off. Standing by the side of the track I can feel all the energy and speed of these horses as they charge around the triangular course, as I attempt to photograph them on the corners I’m pelted by a flurry of dirt and dust from the loose course surface.
In the end Andrea Mari wins the race and takes the ‘Palio’ (the word Palio derives from the Latin: Pallium, a rectangular sheet of cloth that was placed at the finishing post and awarded to the winner). He is carried on the shoulders of jubilant Santa Caterina fans through the streets to San Secondo square, where the festivities started on Friday evening….