Do Donkeys Race…?

Palio degli Asini, Alba 2011

On the first Sunday in October is the big event in Alba’s calendar. A medieval festival culminating in the Palio degli Asini, kicks off Alba’s month-long truffle festival.

The Palio is raced in the piazza where the weekly market is held and involves the various ‘borgo’ (suburb or neighbourhood) of Alba racing donkeys around a short, oval course.

The history of the race stems from the parochial (and historic) rivalry between Alba and Asti. Apparently the two towns have fought since the beginning of time and although legend has become interwoven with fact, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

However, as Counting to Dieci has never let the facts get in the way of a good story, we are running with the most fun version of the legend…

Palio, Alba 2011

In the 13C, as an act of defiance (or to overcome the boredom of a siege – choose your version), soldiers from Asti laying siege to Alba ran a horse race through the vineyards and orchards outside Alba’s walls. This is said to be the origins of Asti’s Palio (the oldest in Italy).

In response, the good burgers of Alba conducted their own ‘Palio’ inside the city’s walls but using donkeys – reportedly the medieval equivalent of a two fingered salute…

In the late 1920s, Asti recommenced their Palio and invited jockeys from the area but after a couple of years when ‘our’ jockeys won, declined to continue inviting Alba. In response, Alba reinstated its donkey Palio degli Asini and continued the tradition of serious parochial slights. It occurs to us that Melbourne and Adelaide could learn a thing or two from these towns.

The pre-race Parade, Alba 2011

In Modern times, before the actual race, each of the nine borgos reenact a medieval scene or historical event in the piazza. It is taken pretty seriously and there is an enormous amount of effort that goes into each of the nine presentations. From what a couple of the locals were telling us, locals work all year long to prepare the costumes for the event.

Palio Parade, Alba 2011

On their way to the piazza each borgo parades in full costume through the streets of the Old Town. We watched more than 1,000 participants all dressed in detailed medieval garb and, despite the fact that it was a steamy 30 degrees, each of the participants remained seriously in character.

There were kings and popes with their various entourages, knights on horseback, villagers dying a mock death from the plague, rouges locked in a cage and whipped within an inch of their lives, and more princes and princesses wearing the full regalia than you could count. The final part of the procession is the Palio itself (“palio” is literally “prize” in Italian and the prize is a large banner), carried on a cart pulled by four white oxen.

i sbandieratori, Alba 2011

Headlining each borgo was the local medieval band, consisting principally of percussionists, with groups (I am not sure about the collective noun) of sbandieratori – the guys that wave the large flags of the borgo and throw them into the air.

The colour and pageantry was very impressive and it is pretty safe to suggest that it was a significant step up from the very best John Martin’s Christmas Pageant that you can remember as a child! Preparations go on for the entire year leading up to the day and there is significant prestige attached to winning the ‘best-presented’ award.

Falconer with Falcon, Alba 2011

We followed the end of the parade down to the Piazza for the Palio. We literally bought the last remaining ticket to the arena, so Jo and S we consigned to walking the streets of Alba while T and I went in (children were free). After a minor incident where the four white oxen broke free and ran riot through the arena and nearby medieval market (T and I climbed under the stands), the presentation of medieval scenes began.

There were knights jousting (full gallop, no head gear and pretty serious lances – we love the Italians’ approach to OH&S), a falconry presentation with falcons (surprise!), eagles and owls, a medieval market and more sbandieratori.

Pedro (the Winning Donkey), Alba 2011

After each borgo had presented, the Palio was carried into the arena (on foot – the oxen weren’t recaptured as far as we could tell) and then the donkey race started. It is worth noting that, from what we saw, racing may well be overstating the exercise.

Donkeys are not the most fleet of foot at the best of times and it seems that the winning jockey was the one who could (a) stay on; and (b) convince their donkey that it was a good idea to go around the track in the correct direction. Both tasks were far more difficult than might be initially thought!

For the record, Borgo del Fumo won the palio on a donkey called Pedro – but for us it was just a great day.

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