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Off to the Races: Behind the Scenes at Alba’s Palio

Off to the Races: Behind the Scenes at Alba’s Palio

Ines Manissero is adjusting some medieval hats with a practiced touch. “Che bella,” she beams, as she slips a veil into place and steps back to admire the transformation of Valentina Moretto from a 22-year-old art restoration student into a 13th century princess.

Ines Manissero dressing Valentina Moretto, this year's queen of the palio, in the colors of San Lorenzo

Ines Manissero dressing Valentina Moretto, this year's queen of the palio, in the colors of San Lorenzo

For over 20 years, Manissero has been dressing up adults, children, horses, and oxen as president of the borgo of San Lorenzo in preparation for the big event of the year: the Giostra delle Cento Torri, or Tournament of the Hundred Towers. This medieval festival, held in the city of Alba on the first Sunday of October, culminates in the Palio degli Asini, a donkey race that is surely Italy’s silliest, slowest, and most affectionately regarded contest between four-legged creatures. Along with white truffles, Barolo wine, and sinful chocolates, it’s one of the best reasons to visit Alba, an ancient town nestled in Piedmont’s majestic Langhe hills.

It’s September, and Manissero has been supervising her volunteers for over five months now. With one month to go, the neighborhood clubhouse is teaming with activity. Two sewing machines are humming in the back room, while a woman with a magic marker is painstakingly drawing a design on a swath of silk that will be used to dress a horse for the parade. Manissero is rummaging through the racks of opulent costumes — silk dresses, heavy brocade cloaks, velvet hats, and all kinds of vestments ornamented with pearls and jewels. Everything is in shades of blue and silver, the colors of this borgo or neighbhorhood, which historically is Alba’s most important, being the seat of the duomo or main cathedral, as well as its town hall and most powerful noble families.

Near the costumes sits a jeweled gold crown. This prop, made of cheap flexible plastic, is the centerpiece for San Lorenzo’s historical reenactment. For in fact, the parade is more than a simple costume party. Rather, each of the nine borghi stages a representation of life during medieval times. It might be the annual harvest, with peasants hauling a wooden cart brimming with vegetables and noisy chickens dangling in wicker cages. Or it might be the Plague of 1347, with citizens dying a mock death every several yards. Or it might be a specific historical event, like the gift of the Crown of Tessaglia to the Church of San Lorenzo — the theme that Manissero and her crew picked as this year’s spectacle. As princess, Moretto gets to carry the crown, a token given to Pope Innocent III during the Crusades when feudal lords presented him with the Greek city of Tessaglia. For centuries this crown rested in Alba’s duomo, until its theft in 1664.

A sbandieratori of Alba performs

A sbandieratori of Alba performs

“Every year we study something new, something real,” says Moretto, a sweet-faced blonde who is one of 60 youth actively involved in San Lorenzo’s parade preparations, along with an equal number of adults. “History is very important in Italy. At school we study local, national history, and international history. When you go into the streets, you see and live with history."

As we wander down Alba’s stone streets after the neighborhood clubhouse closes for the night, Moretto points out some hidden treasures tucked between the medieval towers and sleek modern shops: huge wooden doors fit for a giant that are crowned by the emblem of Alba and date back about 600 years; an ancient beamed ceiling painted with intricate patterns that’s perfectly preserved inside an elegant clothing boutique; Renaissance palaces whose facades still display the original frescoed designs; and the Church of San Guiseppe, where Roman ruins were discovered downstairs. 

Wearing the blue & white colors of contrada San Lorenza

Wearing the blue & white colors of contrada San Lorenza

Naturally, history plays its part in Alba’s donkey race, but so does legend. The palio’s historical roots go back to a long feud between Alba and the neighboring city of Asti. This turf war was part of a larger geopolitical struggle that pitted King Charles of France and his allies (like Alba) against the Republic of Genoa and cities on the Po River plains (like Milan and Asti). Alba was situated on a primary trade route along the Tanaro River and effectively controlled traffic between the Po region and all points south. So Alba taxed everyone who transferred goods towards southern France or Italy’s Ligurian coast. At a certain point, the communes of the plains decided to fight back.

One key attack came on August 10, 1275 — the annual feast day for Alba’s patron saint, San Lorenzo. According to contemporary chronicles, an army of Asti soldiers descended on Alba and ran amuck outside its fortified walls, devastating the vineyards and orchards. As a symbolic affront and act of dominance, it raced its horses around the city walls, as it was accustomed to doing at home on its own saint’s day of San Secondo.

“That’s documented history; the remainder of the story is oral history, popular tradition,” says Piercarlo Verney, a retired lighting and electrical technician who now oversees the palio as president of the Tournament of the Hundred Towers. “Local legend says that while this was happening, the citizens of Alba ran a donkey race inside their walls.” It was, in effect, a medieval thumb to the nose.

One of the 1000 locals who take part in the medieval parade.

One of the 1000 locals who take part in the medieval parade.

A second affront by Asti in more recent years caused the Albese to devise another such gesture. In 1929, Asti began running its horserace again after a long interruption. Jockeys from around the area were invited to participate in this festive affair, but when riders from Alba kept winning the race, Asti withdrew its invitation in 1932. This snub triggered another noisy raspberry from Alba. They announced they would run their own palio, and they’d do it again with donkeys, turning the race’s high drama into farce.

In the early days of the donkey palio, there was no parade, no medieval costumes. These crept in gradually as the event expanded over the years. So, too, did the practical jokes between competing neighborhoods. “They used to give shots to a rival’s donkey to make him sleepy,” recalls Verney with a laugh. Now they can’t, because he and two veterinarians personally oversee the donkeys, which are no longer procured by each borgo, but assigned by lottery the morning of the race. There were also plenty of shenanigans surrounding the palio, the banner that the victor keeps as a trophy (from which the race takes its name). If a palio was successfully stolen from a borgo’s clubhouse, the thieves might demand wine or truffles for its safe return. And its caretaker might get the axe, as happened one year when a borgo coordinator was put on mock trial and condemned to have his head cut off for not adequately protecting the palio. In the historical procession, he was paraded through the streets in a stockade with his sentence writ large in Gothic script.

It’s easy to catapult back in time during this parade. The thunderous sound of a hundred drums in the streets causes the heart to quicken and the imagination to race. The stones of Alba seem to vibrate as the procession passes, with pounding rows of percussionists followed by troops of sbandieratori, the athletic flag-wavers who hurl colorful banners as high as the medieval rooftops. This year there are over a thousand costumed revelers marching through town and into the main piazza — princesses and lords, peasants and friars, warriors in armor, medieval bagpipers, and sack-clothed beggars, along with carts and catapults and flashing swords. Once all have congregated in the piazza of San Lorenzo, a falconer entertains the throngs with his bird of prey, a precise hunter who drops out of the air and shoots like a bullet between the spread legs and hooped arms of brave volunteers. Next comes a performance by Alba’s sbandieratori, national champions of this uniquely Italian sport, who race around the piazza whirling their flags like matadors and sending them airborne in intricate synchronized patterns. During their grand finale, silver confetti is released from the unfurled flags and falls like a rain of glittering diamonds.

Waiting for the next  heat

Waiting for the next  heat

In front of the cathedral, the Queen of Alba and reigning Podestá solemnly watch the proceedings from a raised platform, while to the side the palio’s jury of 20 laugh and gossip on a stand overlooking the finish line. The piazza itself has been turned into a racetrack for the day, with dirt and sawdust covering its stone pavement and bales of hay defining its perimeter. As the jury is introduced, the announcer teases them about their difficult jobs, “eating and drinking so hard during the group dinner last night.” He then queries the audience about their provenance, naming countries in a call-and-response. A few Swiss shout out, then a handful of Austrians, a smattering of French, a fair number of Australians and Japanese, a hearty contingent from the United States, and finally a majority from various parts of Italy.

These 4,000 visitors are just a fraction of the 50,000 tourists who pour into Alba every fall weekend, attracted by a steady stream of events. The palio coincides with the beginning of the truffle fair, the famous market and auction that since 1929 has drawn restaurateurs, gourmands, and truffle hunters from far and wide. There’s also a food fair organized by the Slow Food association, where visitors can sample a mouth-watering array of cheeses, cured meats, arborio rice, dried porcini mushrooms, and countless other artisan products. What’s more, the medieval events continue. A week after the palio there’s a medieval food fair. “It’s like a roving dinner party,” explains Verney. “Every borgo offers something different. You wander through town and get your antipasto, then a primo, and so on. They offer porchetta (roasted pork with rosemary and garlic), salami, minestrone, bruschette (toasted bread with toppings). There’s no pizza, Nutella, or spaghetti. It’s all historic food.” The following week one finds recreations of antique businesses in Alba’s old center, with people spinning wool, shoeing horses, and pressing grapes. 

They balk, they stop to eat hay, they turn around...and sometimes they run.

They balk, they stop to eat hay, they turn around...and sometimes they run.

All this has spawned a new industry — tourism — that now acts as the third pillar in Alba’s economy, supplementing the chocolate and fabric industries which employ 80 percent of the population, directly or indirectly. Alba wears its prosperity well, with swank boutiques flanked by gourmet shops and well-stocked wine stores. But what’s good for Alba is also good for the surrounding countryside. Like farmers’ markets in America, the showcasing of local food and wine has created a demand for these products and created what Verney calls “a new agricultural economy.” Tourists who once stuck to Milan, Turin, or Genoa now venture into the Langhe hills, buying from the source and acting as a catalyst for new restaurants and other business opportunities. Farms and vineyards are flourishing, the quality of products keeps improving, and younger generations are now choosing to stay on the farm, reversing a long population drain. It’s all part of a piece, with Alba at its vortex. 

But the crowd here isn’t thinking about the palio’s role in the local economy. They’re concentrating on the donkeys, a somewhat sorry lot of working animals borrowed for the day. One by one, they are led to the starting gate — a thick rope strung across the track. The donkeys are bareback, as in all palios. But unlike Asti’s high-speed horserace or its more famous cousin in Siena, the risk to man and beast remains low. From the donkeys’ perspective, the palio is no more than a passegiata, a casual stroll, despite those pesky jockeys flailing on their backs. And in a contest of wills, the donkey tends to wins.

Salute!

Salute!

The bell sounds, and the first heat starts with a surprise: two donkeys are actually galloping around the track. Another rounds the corner, then decides he left something behind and turns around, trotting off in the wrong direction. A squat brown donkey is distracted by some hay thrown from the press ring. He comes over to check it out, plowing through bales of hay while the press dive for cover. More donkeys amble around the turn, as slow and serene as mules pulling a barge down a canal. Meanwhile, San Martino’s donkey crosses the finish line to screams of excitement. The sprightly beast and its jockey are ushered into the winner’s circle, which turns out to be the same as the press ring. Soon those quarters are crowded with reporters, donkeys, and jockeys all bumping together and posing for photos. 

As the second group lines up at the starting gate, there’s a mean-looking white beast who stands out of the crowd. His long teeth are bared and legs rigid as three men pull at his halter. The words of Verney come back to me: “If the donkey doesn’t feel dominated, it just doesn’t go.” There is no doubt who’s in charge here. The jockeys, after all, are nonprofessionals from the area — doctors, lawyers, factory workers. Within the first 10 seconds of the race, the agitated animal pitches his rider in the dust and dashes off. Meanwhile, an equally obstinate grey donkey takes another tact; he boycotts the proceedings and stands stock still, rooted to the spot. His jockey jumps off and pushes, then pulls, then waves goodbye and turns heel, much to the crowd’s amusement. The jockey tries again, but it’s hopeless. Two officials in sports jackets finally trot over and succeed in pushing the grey protestor over the finish line, then pump their fists wildly in the air to the crowd’s cheers.

And so it goes through two heats and a final race. At the end, Verney appears on the royal podium, dressed in a fine brocade cloak and gold turban, to announce the official winners. The jockeys in the inner circle listen anxiously, stubbing out their cigarettes in the sawdust as Verney first reads off Best Historical Representation. The prize goes to San Lorenzo — their first win in a dozen years. Screams go up from the blue-and-white crowd, but these are soon drowned out by the red-and-blue throng when it’s announced that the borgo of Santa Barbara has taken first place in the palio. A little speckled donkey obliges with a victory lap, carrying the winning jockey — Marco Vacchetti, a worker in the Ferrero chocolate factory — around the ring. “Il più bravo, il più fortunato,” says the announcer: the best, and the luckiest. And with that the crowd disperses to the sounds of Renaissance music. Winners and losers alike head to their borghi to celebrate with a grand Italian feast, where, surrounded by friends, neighbors, and good food, all are fortunati.

Published in the May 2003 issue of Pasta magazine.

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