Exeter, where I’m from, doesn’t really have one main, central public square. It has a large lawn in front of the cathedral, a long main shopping street, some parks and some open space down by the quay on the river. But if you wanted to hold a big event for a lot of people I’m not quite sure where you’d do it. Most Italian towns on the other hand have a principal piazza which can be used for any number of events, demonstrations, or just as somewhere to hang out and feel like you’re part of the life of the town.
This summer we experienced two different Italian squares, on two different scales. Campiglia Marittima, just inland from the beach where we were staying, is a fairly small place, but of course it has a main square.
With an alliterative eatery.
It also, we discovered, has an annual street theatre festival called Apritiborgo. For such a small town this was a pretty good event, with acts from all over the world. The streets and squares (there are several smaller ones apart from the central square) were packed, there was a market and a few food stalls.
The Uruguayan jugglers were fun.
This was the first time I’d seen someone spinning a hula hoop around their nose.
Of course the advantage to events in public squares is that people who live there get a free show right outside their window.
Whether they’re interested or not.
A few days later we passed through Siena. We’d not been there for over a decade, but it was much as we remembered it. Siena, of course, has a large main square called Il Campo, which is the site of the town’s most famous event: the Palio. As luck would have it we were in town a few days before the event, so preparations were well under way. In fact there are several test runs before the big day, so we got to see all the decorations, crowds and horses in action, albeit a little slower and quieter than the real thing, which we saw on TV when we got home the following week. Most people crowd into the centre of the square, so that the horses race around them. Alternatively you can rent a seat on a balcony above the hoi polloi, for around €400.
When we arrived it was still quite quiet and they were spraying the sand on the ground to stop the horses kicking up clouds of dust.
Colour-coded children from each ‘contrada’ (a team representing a town district) were seated in a prime spot in front of the town hall.
An hour or so later there was standing room only. Usually I hate crowds, but this was a very relaxed atmosphere.
Again there were cheeky peekers in various windows around the square, although not many people actually live in the buildings looking onto Il Campo.
Each team’s supporters would take turns singing football-style chants.
For some reason only the men sang, while the women sat in silence.
Here’s a sample of the singing and general atmosphere.
Horses and their riders emerge from under the town hall.
After much shuffling and faffing around they line up.
And then they’re off for three circuits. The first turn was quite fast, but they slowed down for the next two. It’s basically just to let the riders and horses get the feel of the course.
If you want a bit more detail of what actually happens on the day, I recommend Stef’s blogpost. And here’s the actual race: