#1, Piazzo del Campo, Siena, Italy
Having done my stint as a Medieval Times cocktail wench, medieval pageantry is nothing new to me. Wending my way through a roaring stadium of waving flags and chanting crowds, I balanced my tray packed tightly with bottles of mead, taking down drink orders as they were barked out from inebriated customers. The lords and ladies I waited upon wore the colors of the knights they supported -- from the grimly devoted followers of the dread black knight to the over-enthusiastic pep squad cheering on the underdog green knight. They donned paper crowns, their fingertips damp with turkey gravy. From the kingly dais, trumpets blared. In the sand-covered pit, knights on horseback jousted. Sure, it was the end of the twentieth century and I was punching a clock in a hallway in Schaumburg, Illinois. (My paychecks were, amusingly, distributed from Schaumburg Castle, Inc.) But that was an honest-to-God falcon flying around the perimeter of that stadium, and you'd better believe that bird scared the crap out of me when I gingerly descended those steps, doing my best to keep the roaring masses happily full of drink and avoiding the bad scene of seeing hundreds of dollars of liquor toppled over in one fell swoop and my left eye taken out by a wayward talon.
Yes, the life of a cocktail wench was never an easy one. And while such nonsense does little more than make me cringe at the memory of the rust-colored peasant top and blue felt corset I wore, not to mention my silly Monty Python-inspired accent, the fanfare does come to mind when considering the city of Siena.
Siena, a beautiful medieval city nestled in the rolling hills of Tuscany, is maybe most well known for its beautiful and sprawling town square -- the Piazza del Campo -- and also for its annual horse race -- the Palio -- that goes down twice a year, once in July and again in August. The city's seventeen districts, also known as the contrade, compete for the coveted prize, which is basically just a big old flag and, more importantly, bragging rights for days, weeks, and months to come. Each contrada has a special mascot and colors (there's the Lupa, or she-wolf, and the Tartuca, or tortoise, and so on) that you can see displayed all throughout the streets and homes of Siena. There are rivalries among the contrade, some more contentious than others, and it all comes to a fever pitch on the days leading up to the Palio.
The Palio fills the city's main square, where anywhere from 30,000 to (fill in a more ghastly number here) spectators gather to cheer on their heroic horse and jockey. The race itself lasts for three laps around the piazza and is over in a matter of maybe forty-five seconds. But the fanfare -- parades, feasts, and general merrymaking -- goes on for far longer. I've never been there for the horse race, and for someone who gets irritated at one person brushing against her on a subway platform, I hope to never be. But it's a fantastic ritual and one that I'm glad exists, if for no other reason than it convinces me there was maybe a glimmer of real life behind the Medieval Times dinner theatre fiasco I participated in so very long ago.
But let's not take the verisimilitude too far. I'm reminded of the tattooed, nose-ringed character (played by an eye-rolling Janeane Garofalo) in the movie The Cable Guy, my own döppleganger brought to life on film. When Jim Carrey's obnoxious character summons the wench and asks her for a knife and fork, she replies impatiently: "There was no silverware in medieval times; hence there is no silverware at Medieval Times. Do you want Coke or Pepsi?"
I'll take the mead, thanks very much.