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italian detour     joie de vivre - a journey into the heart of italy

Josefina & Wolfgang Bleier
Austria, August 2007

During his "Italian Journey" Goethe said, that the speedy horse-drawn carriage would not allow him to enjoy the beauty of the Tuscan landscape. How right he was ...

At long last, after many years, we've made up our plans to return to Portonovo, a tiny peninsula at the Riviera del Conero. But what would be a journey to Italy without a detour to the Tuscany. The time was good as August 16th was near, the day of the 2nd Palio of this year, the spectacular horse race at the Piazza del Campo in Siena. It was a very good day, made from tradition, celebrations and horses racing fast & furious, rivalry paired with joy and simplicity with taste. Joie de vivre at its best. Join us on our journey across the Tuscany into Le Marche, where our destination was Portonovo at the Riviera del Conero. Buon viaggio!

Olive trees

Tuscany      If you are in hurry, make a detour

The destination of our journey was the Riviera del Conero, a region at the Adriatic coast south of Ancona. But taking the direct route, that's not for us. Slow traveler like us cannot just turn our back to Tuscany and the impressive town Siena when going to the Adriatic sea.
Tuscany is one of 20 regions of Italy, well known for its distinctive landscapes, history and rich culture. It is possibly the greatest collection of historical assets and art in the world, from extraordinary paintings and sculptures to frescoes and architectural masterpieces, not to mention countless traditional festivities each year. The charm of Tuscany attracts travelers since centuries from all over the world.


This land is blessed by nature and its people. Picturesque vineyards, winding sandy roads, gentle bare hills decorated by lines of cypress trees and old towns on hilltops form the typical Tuscan landscapes. But more important, Tuscany is also famous for it's history and rich culture. Past and presence blend in a unique manner as Tuscans are not only proud of their cultural heritage, but also strongly preserve it. Their love to their homeland culminates into what is called "campanilismo", which is the typical local patriotism in many Tuscan towns, which reaches that far as one can hear the town's campanile bells ringing.

The typical Tuscany town has a Piazza in its center, which forms also the heart of its inhabitant's social life. There you will find some "Pallazos", the "Pallazo del Commune", wells, the "Duomo", coffee bars and the "Campanile". In almost every Tuscan town this place is a collection of valuable historical assets.


Usually it is also the place where Tuscans celebrate their fabulous feasts, which mostly originate from their history. Some festivities are of competitive character, some are very traditional, and some are spectacular great events such as the Palio in Siena. To discover entire Tuscany's diversity and manifold cultural places, its picturesque landscapes, great wines and culinary delights could take a lifetime. Should you once fall in love with Tuscany, it may become a voyage of discovery that virtually will never end. The capital of Tuscany is the magnificent Florence, but our small road brought us to tiny villages en route to the historical town Siena.

Siena     Cor magis tibi Sena pandit

is written on the northernmost of Siena's gates to the historical town. It is a well-wishing embrace of the Sienese to greet foreigners since centuries. But still, Sienese watch over their city with proud and even jealousy, and you'll find a most true and authentic unity between the Sienese and their town.
Like many other Tuscan towns, Siena was first settled in the time of the Etruscans (800 - 100 B.C.) under Roman rule. The Etruscans were an advanced population who sustainably changed the culture of central Italy through their use of irrigation to make farmable land, and their settlements in well-defended hill-forts. At the time of Emperor Augustus a town called Sena Julia was founded in the site. The Roman origin reflects in the town's emblem – a she-wolf suckling the infants Romulus and Remus.

Siena duomo

Whether you will approach Siena from the northern green landscapes of the Chianti, or from the southern Crete region that is shaped by its characteristic bare hills of clay and cypress trees, make sure to travel slow by taking the small roads to Siena. Siena is built on several hills, and its massive cathedral striped from black and white marble dominates the great views of Siena while you will slowly come nearer.

The Contrade
Siena is divided into three districts, the Terza di Kamollia, Terza di Città and Terza di San Martino. All three districts meet at the Piazza del Campo, which, due to it's unique shape and slope, surely can be considered one of the most beautiful central "squares" on earth.


Every district has its "Contrade" or parts of the town, of which each has its own flag. Siena's 17 Contrade play an important role in the Palio horse race on 2nd July and on 16th August, and of course in a Sienese's social life.

The names of the Contrade are quite fanciful and symbolic: Tartuca (Tortoise), Capitana dell'Onda (Ruler of the Wave), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Istrice (Porcupine), Drago (Dragon), Civetta (Owl), Chiocciola (Snail), Pantera (Panther), Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Leocorno (Unicorn), Valdimontone (Ram), Giraffa (Giraffe), Selva (the Woodland) and Torre (Tower).


Sienese are born into a Contrada, henceforth they become "Contradaiolo" for their lifetime and live the life of the Contrada to which they belong to. Also their social activities are closely linked to their Contrada, and for most part of the year the preparations for the next Palio simmer under everyday life’s surface. We arrived in Siena on 15th August, the day before the final race of the Palio 2007.

The Palio     the noble art of celebrating
Arriving in Siena shortly before mid of August, the first thing one can notice are thousands of flags of Siena's Contrade put up on almost every house and corner and the crowds of people, which turn to masses the closer one comes to Piazza del Campo in the heart of Siena. Apparently something very special must be coming up. palio1 It's because August 16th is near, the day of the famous horse race at the Il Campo. We took a bath in the crowds and fully absorbed the atmosphere of the Palio as an emotional and full-blooded festival. The Palio is more than just a horse race. It is a celebration of ongoing rivalry and competition amongst Siena's Contrade that culminates in the horse race during a festival that is without equal.
We arrived in Siena on August 15th and continued our journey on August 18th. We had a great time enjoying celebrations, the fantastic atmosphere and a hard-fought horse race, in which traditions perfectly blend with excitement and joy. On the last three days and in the morning before the final race six trial races are run, and even it is just trials, the exciting atmosphere may lead visitors to believe it is the final contest! The final highlight of the Palio, the most dramatic horse race, is preceded by ceremonies and a spectacular pageant, the Corteo Storico.

From the seventeen Contrade only ten can take part in the race to win the Palio. The seven Contrade that were excluded from the race of the previous year are qualified to take part in the next year, while the other three are decided among the previous year's participants by draw. The jockey, the "Fantino", their hero who can be both well-beloved and hatred, is rarely a Sienese.

For most part of the year the preparations for the next Palio simmer, but during the days before the race the atmosphere gets boiling and turns into a mixture of happiness, emotions and excitement. Simply put, it's fueled by passion. Although the final highlight is the horse race, the Palio is also a performance of rites and ceremonies. The blessing of the horses and the historical procession of the Contrade accompanied by rhythms of drumbeats goes on for hours before the race starts. Sudden blasts from firing cannon salutes make sure that no one misses any part of the ceremony, the detonation wave echoes across the piazza as a signal to 60.000 spectators that the race is about to begin soon.


In a surge of applause and cheering finally the horses and their jockeys start marching in from the "Entrone" of the "Pallazo del Commune" into the meanwhile boiling arena. Fans scream and wave banners, whistles blare, cannon salutes blast, and groups of a Contrada burst into a song, which is their neighborhood anthem; Sienese of a friendly Contrada smile; foes will whistle and boo. This uproar goes on while the horses slowly move to the start area, until the "Mossiere" announces the result of the draw for the positions in the start line-up.

palio4In this moment sudden silence comes over Il Campo. 60.000 people in a crowd, but one can hear the neighbour's breath and the hiss of the own pulsing blood. The start ("La Mossa"), including the minutes before are among the most emotional moments of the race.
L'Ordine alla Mossa...: Giraffa..., Chiocciola..., Leocorno..., by naming the Contrade, the "Mossiere" calls the jockeys to line-up their horses. As soon as in the start line, they are in a scramble for better start conditions while "waiting" for the tenth horse that lingers behind the start area to open the race. In this authentic Italian orderly chaos it seems that the race already starts at this point. The wrangling among the jockeys on nervous horses over the best start conditions continues for quite some time, while tension mounts. It looks confusing and must be a nightmare to get all the horses together in the line-up. If nothing helps, the Mossiere can take out the jockeys from the line-up to calm down the horses before lining up again, so this procedure can go on for quite a while.
All over sudden this tension erupts into screams of excitement! The tenth horse opens the race from a separate area behind the pack and the rope falls for the other nine horses. We were taken by surprise to focus the furiously racing jockeys behind the huge crowds of spectators at the other side of Il Campo, pushing their horses to breakneck speed in this dramatic race. It was hell of a noise and the longest and fastest 90 seconds in life. Three times around Il Campo and the race was over with the blasts of a salute cannon. With or without a jockey on its back, the first horse to cross the finish line is the winner.

IL PALIO - Cronache, notizie e statistiche sul Palio di Siena
Il Palio provides chronicles and comprehensive statistics about the Palio of Siena since 1644.


Palio in July 1992 August 1993 July 1994 July 1997 July 2000 July 2004.
During our stay in Siena in August 2007 the Palio was won by the Contrada of the Leocorno.

When visiting the Palio one should go to Il Campo in time, in order to get in safely and to find a good place for watching. It's crowded and it can get unpleasantly dense from the sheer number of people squeezing into Piazza del Campo. Although the racehorses are treated very well all year round, the race itself is extremely tough and quite dangerous for horses and jockeys. Since the jockeys ride bareback some are thrown off or crash with their horse into the barriers and suffer injuries, sometimes quite badly. They also make use of their "Nerbo", a whip they receive when they enter Il Campo through the Entrone. Most of the horses who loose their jockey keep on running the race out of sheer desperation until they cross the finish line. This year's glorious winner was the Contrada of the Leocorno (Unicorn). The loser in a race is considered to be the Contrada whose horse came second, not last.

It's probably a waste of words to describe what was going on immediately after the race has finished. It was an eruption of excitement, screaming, cheering, enthusiastic banner waving and tears of joy of the winning Contrada, and disappointment among those who lost.palio5 The video clips above will give you a much better impression about that storm of enthusiasm than any words could do.
Even though horses and jockeys aren't spared from brutality in a Palio race, it seems that for them the real trouble starts just after the race.
Beleaguered by enthusiastic fans who storm to the winning team from all directions they can hardly manage to escape from touching, backslapping, pinching, kissing and grabbing souvenirs, sometimes being pulled down from the horse by excited Contradaioli. When a Contrada wins the Palio, it becomes reborn and is the baby, and the Contrada that hasn't won the Palio for the longest time is called the "Nonna" (grandmother).
The processions by which flag-waving Contradaioli celebrate horse and jockey in the streets of Siena continued for another few days, while we moved on to the small roads south of Siena leading us across Crete Senesi and Umbria to the rolling hills of Le Marche.

Le Marche     The only problem is, that you may not want to leave

Wherever you may find yourself in the Marche, the Apennine mountains are never very far away. They form the region's western border and provide a home for some of Italy's most fascinating wildlife.


The Marche lies eastern side of central Italy between the Apennine Mountains and the Adriatic Sea, alongside Tuscany and Umbria. This region is the rural Italy, unspoilt and rarely touched by tourism, where you can explore the beauty and wilderness of mountains or hilly landscapes and easily soak up the sun on the sea. In the Marche, compared to its central Italian sisters, cultural heritage comes in smaller portions, but quality and purity is often at the very best. The administrative capital of the Marche is Ancona, but of the region's principal towns, Urbino is the favorite of most tourists. This jewel of a renaissance city remains with very little changes since the days of its past.

It seems that the Marche combines a little bit of everything of bella Italia. Mountains, farmhouses on top of picturesque hills, vineyards, fields of olive trees and lavender form a landscape tinted in a colorful variety just like in an impressionistic painting. ancona1 Inland of Marche, you will find places where time has really stood still. The Sibillini Mountains, a region of myths and legends, are part of the Italian Apennine and the wilderness of Mt. Vettore reaches 2.476 meters. True, the Adriatic coast is the mecca for sun & sand holiday makers since decades, but the sea-side of the Marches also hides tiny secrets unknown to mass tourism, where you can experience the genuine Italian way of life. In late summer, when vineyards on surrounding hills announce the harvest of good wine, the land shows a wide range of artistic colors, which turns into a breathtaking scenery at the Mont Conero seacoast, flavoured by the scents of fresh breezes coming from the sea.

In the Marches food is a passion. Le Marche still keeps all the flavors from local produce of this fertile land. Ripe tomatoes, herbs, olive oil, mushrooms and truffles, tiny sliced prosciutto, sheep cheese, fresh seafood and fish are some of the delicious ingredients assembled with the minimum of fuss.

Ancona market

Dishes are strictly based on tradition and local produce, and each local area has its cucina tipica. The old labels ristorante, trattoria and osteria have become somewhat interchangeable in recent years; many of the smarter, more expensive places call themselves osterie and take pride in reinterpreting traditional local dishes with great flair. The arrival of tourists in smaller towns and villages has often raised the standards also in simple restaurants and led to the "rediscovery" of long lost traditional recipes. The flavors of Marche's agricultural products are simply extraordinary and make the meals a culinary delight each time. Cooking in the Marche is deeply related to its tradition, and even prime restaurants offer dishes just like nonna (grandmother) used to make.

Riviera del Conero


The Riviera del Conero is unique in the region for its genuine Italian lifestyle. It's a coastal stretch blessed by the beauty of nature. We arrived here with the impressions of a wonderful time we’ve had in the Tuscany, and were rewarded with a splendid view from Monte Conero down to the beautiful sea. Finally here we were looking forward to enjoy fresh seafood harvested in the Riviera del Conero sea, accomplished by a light and crisp Verdicchio white wine. So it was about time to take the steep road that winds down from Monte Conero to Portonovo.

Portonovo     unique for its genuine Italian lifestyle
At long last, after many years we returned to Portonovo, a simple but unique setting on a small peninsula at the Riviera del Conero. We arrived here secretly hoping that nothing had changed since then, and it didn't.


We returned to a place at the adriatic sea nestling in rich, unspoilt nature, and we've met again those pleasant people whose way we came across many years ago. The lovely Ristorante Emilia, Franco and his big heart and his family were still there. This is Portonovo, a place where the scents and the colours of the bay still change with the season in a magnificent blend with the impressive Conero rocks that embrace the turquoise sea in a sweet coloured variety.

Portonovo beach

Portonovo is a place where simplicity unites with taste, and it is a special place that holds many happy memories to us, personal memories of course. From here on we'll leave you with the impressions of the photographs we’ve made on our detour to Italy . . .


Italian Detour Photo Gallery

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