The Horses Are Running… But The Trains Are Not

INot Just Another "Dolce Vita"f you’re not sure what the horse reference is about in the title of this post, you need to do some reading about Il Palio di Siena. Read here and here and here for more information.

On the day of Il Palio di Provenzano 2015 (Palio dedicated to Our Lady of Provenzano), to say it was hot would be an understatement. The devil himself would have preferred inferno to the kind of weather Siena was experiencing on July 2nd. However, the weather is no match for a centuries-old tradition such as the Palio, and the race had to go on.

Having seen the Palio 4 times before, I knew exactly what the day would entail. Traffic jams (both human and vehicle) in and all around Siena. Hours crammed shoulder to shoulder in the piazza under the scorching sun waiting for the race to begin. Stores would be closed. People would be off work. The city would be jam-packed, alive and buzzing. And of course, I wanted to be in the thick of it all.

This little one's got the best seat in the house.

This little one had the best seat in the house.

Problem is, I had to be in the office that day. Outside of Siena. With no car, Vespa or horse of my own to take me back into town. Thus, I had to rely on mezzi pubblici (public transit) to move around. Now, usually this isn’t an issue. Bus in the morning, train home at night, and I have all the schedules for both written down in my hand-dandy notebook that goes everywhere with me. No problem. Nessun problema. I’d organize my day and make it back into Siena with lots of time to spare before the race was set to begin. I left the house feeling confident I could make it work, and excited to see what this year’s July Palio would be like.

The Corteo Storico passing through town before the Palio.

The Corteo Storico passing through town before the Palio.

By the time 4:45 rolled around, I was finishing up my tasks for the day and saying ciao to my colleagues. The train comes just after 5, I knew, and it’s about a 10 minute walk to the station from the office. Perfetto. I stepped out into the hot sun, donned my sunglasses and started walking towards the station. Down the sidewalk, past the roundabout, up the ramp, onto the platform. I validated my ticket and took my usual seat on the scorching hot platform bench (made of metal, positioned in the sun, of course) to wait for my treno to arrive.

Down the track, the signals started to flash and the loudspeaker crackled on. Ahhh, excellent. It was going to be right on time. I listened for the train arrival message I almost knew by heart, absentmindedly scrolling through my phone.

“We wish to inform our passengers that the regional train xxxx leaving from xxxxx and heading to Siena at 5:00…”

Yep, sounds about right… Scroll, scroll, scroll.

“…is cancelled today.”

Scroll, scroll, scr— WHAT? My head snapped up and my mouth fell open. No, no, no, no, NO!

“TrenItalia wishes its passengers a pleasant journey.”

Pleasant journey, un cavolo! (Yeah right, a pleasant journey!)

I looked down at my train ticket, no longer useful, and gave it a satisfying rip right down the middle. Now what!? A look at the bus schedule told me that the bus was supposed to come at the same time as the train. (Great). In another spot. (Not great). Across town. (Not great at all). My stomach sank as I realized there was no way I would make it.

And when was the next train? In an hour. But was it even running? Who knew?! And even if it was, it would potentially get me back into town too late to get into the piazza before it closed. Then I’d be watching the Palio on tv with none of the same excitement or rush as standing in the piazza would give.

A taxi maybe? But no, no taxis in this tiny Tuscan town. Have one come from Siena? On Palio day? Not likely.

I peeled myself off the bench and headed back down the platform ramp to street level. I’d just head back to the office and see if I could bum a ride off of someone going back to Siena. Maybe. Except no one was leaving work at the same time as me. So the likelihood of someone being able to give me a ride was…

Nulla. Nothing. Zero. Or less.

Well, I’d head back into the office anyways and sit in the air conditioning, then head back and hope to make the next train. If it was running. I opened my phone to the Trenitalia website to try and find out, and started walking back past the roundabout.

A quick search told me that no, it didn’t look like the next train was running either. Now I was really done. Just as I was considering starting a Palio pilgrimage walk back to Siena (10kms+) I glanced back up from my phone and caught a glimpse of a bus, a bus which must have materialized out of thin air because it wasn’t there a second before, coming around the roundabout beside me.

It couldn’t be my bus. My bus was supposed to be here when the train was. Minutes ago. Maybe even 10 minutes ago. I’d be another bus. Another bus that couldn’t help me. I was sure of it.

1689781-bus-urbano-2010_1But as it approached, its orange lighted letters came into focus in front of my sunglasses and miracle of miracles! It was my bus. The bus to Siena. The bus that would take me right back into town in time for the Palio.

So, fighting the urge to do a ridiculous victory dance right there at the roundabout, I stuck out my hand and did my best impression of a hitchhiker. The driver saw me, smiled, slowed down, and then, just as I was starting to relax, rolled right past me.


Never one to give up easily, I started running. As fast as my sandal-clad feet would allow. And run I did, right up to the next bus stop, where the driver was patiently waiting for me to arrive. I jumped through the open door (with much more success than I did here), launched a breathless (but heartfelt!) “grazie!” in his direction and plunked myself down on a seat, feeling victorious and thanking my lucky stars for my good fortune.

Really, I shouldn’t have expected any different though, for two reasons:

1) Il palio porta fortuna! The Palio brings luck!

2) As we all know, Italian buses never run on schedule.

To see what happened after I finally got to the piazza, follow this link and watch the Palio.

4 thoughts on “The Horses Are Running… But The Trains Are Not

  1. I guess this is one of those things — all’s well that ends well. Glad to hear your adventure did turn out well. Our train adventure entailed being at the wrong railroad station in Rome and missing the train. Luckily we were able to get one from the station we were in. Can’t wait to hear your next adventure. By the way, I have a huge red purse that I travel with — I think I can put a bathtub in it 🙂 Buona giornata.

  2. Thanks goodness you made it, it looked especially exciting this year! Its without question the most exciting day I’ve ever had watching the Palio in August 2010 and I’m hoping to catch it again this year, fingers crossed! And finally well done to Torre!!!

  3. If you were in the Piazza, I think we just had a better view. Really glad you made it. I was in Siena years ago at Palio time. Unfortunately I didn’t know enough about it before hand to have reservation for window and didn’t want to brave the crowd. ( I guess I was already too old to want that.) But I did see a practice run one day and had a great view of the show of the Contrada (Contrata?) on Palio day. I watched from the steps of the Duomo when they performed there. I believe the Orca won–Anyway it was St. Catherine’s neighborhood, and when I could look into her church, she had the scarf around her neck!

  4. Hope you enjoyed it. I’ve just seen a doco at the Sydney Film Festival called ‘Palio’ and although I’ve been to Siena and know a little about the event, I had no idea there was so much intrigue, drama (and politics) involved behind the scenes.

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