The drums and trumpets blared a regimented urgent rhythm that was reminiscent of a military march. Earnest young men in street clothes held large silk flags with bright colors for each contrade (family house) in the city of Ferrara.
Young men – and a few women – were lunging and marching and throwing these flags in intricately choreographed routines. This was practice night … tomorrow night the costumed competitions begin.
They are putting their best in front of the crowd and dignitaries watching from the seats of honor – a little preliminary buzz and intimidation of the watching competition. One young man juggles five flags at once – the silk flying up against the lights from the palace courtyard. Tomorrow night these teams will be out of the sweat pants and shorts and into elaborate costumes for the real show … and I plan to be there early to get a good spot.
The man next to me is excited and intent on the action. He says yes, this is the Palio, and a conversation ensues that is a friendly mix of his Italian/little English meets my Spanish/bad Italian/English. But it worked.
I had stumbled upon the oldest Palio in the world and just happened to be here on one of the biggest weekends of the festival. And I did not even know it existed – much less that these competitions were happening – until I followed my ears into the square.
Ferrara’s Palio started in the 1200’s and has been held every year since (barring a few interruptions for war and natural disaster in the 1800s). It’s an entire month of celebrations that pit the eight great houses and surrounding neighborhoods of Ferrara against each other in friendly competitions that end with a boy’s foot race, a girls foot race, a donkey race and a horse races though the city. It was done on St. George’s day, but really it was to honor the Duke – the Estes ruling family. Now it is a celebration of Ferrara’s history and dominance as a great city of the Renaissance.
I have happened upon the flag throwing competition also known as the Ancient Games of the Estes flags after the ruling Estes ducal family. These games are very serious business here and a tradition since the Palio begin.
I couldn’t have planned arriving in Ferrara better if I had actually bothered to … plan.
My enthusiastic friend’s contalde is San Spirito and they are sporting the green and gold flags. As they played and marched and performed he pointed out how straight their lines were. How syncopated their throws and how complex their choreography. “They are like my children” he told me proudly. And they are clearly the contalde to beat.
Their faces were pinched in concentration. They look nervous and very serious. This competition is high stakes … the honor of your house and the eyes of your city are watching whether you can successfully do your part in the whirlwind dance of flying silk.
As we watched leaning against the barrier, my new friend kept inching closer. I kept inching away. We must have slowly maneuvered five feet down the barrier in our own little dance until I finally said good night and headed back to my hotel. He took this passive rejection quite good naturedly – sometimes I think the men here feel honor-bound to make a pass but would be shocked if you actually took them up on it.
Tonight will be a treat. Because it’s an honor to witness a community’s traditions and pride and history.
But mostly this is special because it is a completely unexpected and unasked for gift. And maybe now after the last two years of sickness and the long path coming back I can better appreciate the serendipity of special, unexpected moments.