We were still unpacking boxes one weekend when we heard drums, cheering and music outside. We were intrigued. We poked our heads outside. We went exploring, camera in hand.
Across the street there was some sort of festival going on. There were people in medieval garb, music, cheers, lots of drummers and flag throwers. It was incredible, and, literally right outside our door!
We discovered that all across Italy during the summer and fall various cities hold a celebration called The Palio. The word palio originates from the Latin "pallium" which refers to the cloth drawer containing the prize money won by one of the town teams. The teams are called "porte" or gates as they represent the medieval gates of each city.
The most famous palio festival, takes place in the Tuscan town, Siena where the main piazza, Piazza del Campo, is turned into a race-track with a live horse race twice a year. I cannot imagine the intensity of a live horse race on these ancient cobblestoned streets. Parma's celebration has races too, just not quite as exciting as Siena's. Parma's race is more like . . . adorable. More on that below.
In Parma, the palio is held the 3rd weekend in September. This citywide celebration dates back to the ancient "Scarlet Run" of the 1300's. The Palio was originally developed as a competition between several noble families of Parma. Some say that exiled nobility was allowed to return to Parma to participate in the competition. Legend also has it that prisoners were allowed to compete in exchange for regaining their freedom. The games consisted of several contests utilizing medieval weapons and horses. The Palio was held every year from the 1300's until Napoleon's arrival in the nineteenth century.
I could not find any information as to why the games stopped under Napleon's era. Happily, for us, however, the festival returned in the 1970's and continues each year to this day.
As I mentioned, each September, the town is divided into 5 teams called "porte" which represent the ancient city gates: the green of Santa Croce (symbol - the eagle), the white of Porta San Francesco (symbol - the wolf), the blue of Porta Nuova (symbol - the unicorn), the yellow of Porta San Michele (symbol - the dragon) and red Porta San Barnaba (symbol - the lion). Each team has an official costume and flag that incorporates their color and symbol. Instead of money, now the prize for winning the most points by one of the porte consists of a painting. The painting must include the Madonna, Parma protector, an architectural identifier of the city as well as the 5 porte coat of arms.
There is an opening ceremony, a blessing by the church and songs by the church choir. There is also a magnificent parade with townspeople dressed in traditional medieval clothing as well as 2 running competitions, one for men, one for women and a competition for children racing donkeys (the aforementioned adorable equine race). I was thoroughly taken with the magnificent medieval costumes. The materials were lush, colorful and elegant. After the costumes, I also really enjoyed watching the flag throwing competitions. The flag throwers display agility, gracefulness and athleticism all at once.
We spent the better part of the day wandering around our new city taking in the festival. It was an unexpected delight to see the history of the town walking right before us. We didn't get much unpacking done that day, but we meandered. We learned. We "oohed" and "aahed." We laughed and enjoyed ourselves. We felt so lucky to have literally stumbled upon this incredible tradition.
This was the adventure that we were looking for. Things were starting to look up.