The Palio at Buti

On crisp clear Sunday morning I headed south-east out of Lucca with friends Carol and David in the direction of Colle di Compito on our way to the quaint little town of Buti that lies around 22km from Lucca. After about twenty minutes we turned right and started to climb up the road towards Buti, part of a well-known and challenging cycle route from Lucca known as the Monte Serra. No sooner as we approached Buti the way was closed by what appeared to be roadworks. After parking-up, we walked on to discover the lorries and diggers were in fact just finishing laying sandy soil that marked the start of the ‘racecourse’. Buti’s high street was site of the Palio!

Together with railings, a small grandstand, cameras, large video screens and the colourful flags of the seven different contrade or districts of the town, we mingled with various local supporters proudly wearing their scarfs and hats displaying allegiance to their own contrada.

After a brief wander around the town square, where the high street is flanked by a charming stream that runs around a medieval fortress, there appeared plenty of choice for places to eat.  After a couple of glasses of local red wine, it was time for spot of lunch in a nearby trattoria. Lunch consisted of a ‘Palio fixed menu’ of cold cuts of salami and crostini followed by Penne all’Arrabiata and Risotto ai funghi porcini which was then followed by Trippa alla romana, roast pork and potatoes. Tasting the tripe was not unpleasant as it was heavily disguised in a classic style sauce of onion, celery, carrot, white wine and of course tomato in the form of passata di pomodoro.

At around 2.30 the racing was due to begin after a morning of medieval pageantry; the crowd were becoming lively giving vocal support to their own horses and jockeys. Each race consisted of three runners and riders that assembled in a small paddock made from bales of straw who then, under the direction but not at all under the control of the starter, entered the course. There appeared to be few rules as to how the race was meant to start, only in the fact that all three horses had to attempt to face in the same direction at the same time. Even this simple rule appeared to be disregarded as the riders literally ‘jockeyed’ for position behind a makeshift starting tape stretched across the course. After several attempts the first race began and the initial leading horse and jockey in red and white began to dominate the race as the horses ran uphill all the way to the undefined finishing line.

Everybody seemed to have an opinion on who won the race and the horse ‘first past the post’ was not always declared the official winner. In the second race three more horses were entered and after at least six or seven false starts, which just seemed to amuse the crowd, only two horses finished the course as the third horse was left behind at the start. This caused a brief amount of controversy from the jockey and some supporters that soon faded however as the third race got underway. This was the most exciting as all three horses were in contention until the finish and there didn’t appear to be a clear winner.

As novice spectators to the Palio we assumed that after a half-hour interval, when more food, wine, beer or fresh coffee could be consumed trackside, semi-finals and a final would take place. Organisation did not seem a strong imperative to the whole event and this proved to be part of its charm and the ‘Italian way’. Carol informed me that the previous year the judges abandoned the final as the light faded before the race could be run, much to the annoyance of the crowd.

The novelty and excitement of this annual local event in Buti, where you can get ‘up-close’ to the horses and fully appreciate their speed and power together with the skill and bravery of the jockeys, we thought was a good fun day out as we returned to Lucca slightly bemused by the whole experience. Of course, the most famous Palio in Tuscany is held in the centre of Siena on two separate days in July and August where historical records of horse racing date back to the 6th century but for a small town Buti managed to put on a good show even in January.