“Blood makes you related, but loyalty makes you family,” my friend Chiara says to me.
We were carefully ensconced underneath a copious awning, sipping our caffe corretto as we looked out upon the famous Piazza del Campo in Siena, Italy. In the drizzling rain, the square and its Mangia Tower had taken on the look of a bedraggled beast and I could not understand how this stained and smudged town aroused such passion. Since she hates to be asked to explain herself, I maintain my taciturnity and think about her statement.
Siena has seen more than its share of medieval murder, deception, and blood thirst. This quantity of violence had led to one of my favorite aspects of the city: winding streets that slither upwards into a maze of ochre tiled dwellings only to stop at dead ends. It is a wonderful town for aimless labyrinth hunts as long as you have sturdy thighs. As the rain peters out and the two of us venture back inside this tangle of passages, I continue to struggle with how the Sienese still cling onto their centuries old clan loyalties.
The city is divided into seventeen districts known as contradas, and each one comes with its own herald, patron saint, and esteemed history. In Italian, the word “contrada” defines a region, a neighborhood, or sometimes even a street. For those born in Siena, the contrada signifies much more. It is ancestry, pedigree, and kinfolk all rolled into one. Their passion for their contrada is clearly displayed each summer during the two palios, or horse races, that occur in the Piazza del Campo, but that is the obvious part. During the rest of the year, loyalty to one’s district involves attending festivals, participating in important social events, and making sure that one’s own life benchmarks are celebrated inside the contrada. I try to wrap my head around the concept of a neighborhood loyalty program as Chiara tells me how proud she is that her family has lived inside her ward for five generations. This is clearly a part of her identity and she is gratified to be a respected member of her quarter. Chiara would not exchange her lifestyle for any other.
“It gives me great comfort to be a part of this,” she confides to me as we wend our way deeper inside Siena. “I know I can always trust the contrada to have my best interest.”
“Isn’t it a burden to be chained this way to one place?” I ask. “What if you ended up doing something that the contrada wanted you to for the wrong reason?”
Chiara looks at me, shocked that I would suggest such a possibility. As we climb a steep and narrow lane towards her district, she frowns in thought. I wonder if I have stumped her or insulted her and keep silent, not sure what to say next.
“Loyalty is not blindly following someone,” she finally utters as she stops us and clasps my arm. “Loyalty is knowing that they are there for you through thick and thin.” She waves her arms towards the line of somber stone facades that hover over us. “This isn’t a few blocks of buildings to me. These are my people, this is my birthplace.” Chiara emphasizes her sense of belonging by softly patting her right hand over her heart. I suddenly realize that for my Sienese companion, it is not a matter of her being a member of the contrada, but of the contrada being a cherished portion of her self.
I nod at her, but as someone who has moved around and traveled a lot, I am not sure that I understand such attachment to one place. Still, I am surprised at her definition of fealty. To me, such devotion seems like a burden, a lessening of individuality. But Chiara has shown me that for her, allegiance to a community gives her confidence to be who she is, a connection to her heritage, and a sense of purpose.
We arrive at one of the dead end alleyways and I see a large wooden table set up with fruits, cold meats, and pasta bowls. Old men have already seated themselves around the table, old women appear out of the nooks and crannies carrying more platters of food, and children run around tripping over dogs and cats. Chiara has finagled me an invitation to join her neighbors at a traditional baptismal party. I am warmly welcomed and, as an honored guest, asked to admire the christened baby before being plied with every sort of soup, roasted meat, and stewed vegetable dish imaginable. My friend disappears in an embrace of older women all of whom she affectionately calls zia or nonna though they are not blood related. Three teenage girls approach me and we discuss the sights I have seen in Siena, before they reveal that they are excited to have “cara” Chiara back in town. They want to field her advice on a local charity project.
Eventually, as the entire contrada wields its way through the long meal, I hear gossip about members of a rival district. A heated argument ensues among the boys about the chances of winning the palio. Before I finish my fifth almond cookie dessert, a small band of violin players strikes up next to me. The entire cul-de-sac is an exuberant mixture of block party and family reunion. As I watch Chiara interacting with those around her, the strangeness of her allegiance to her contrada melts away. The folks surrounding her are more than her neighbors. They have guided her first steps, promoted her aspirations, and now esteem her as a valued individual. There is an African saying that it takes a whole village to raise a child. The Sienese understand the sentiment better than most. Even though I am a stranger I can quickly see the love and support that Chiara’s contrada provides for her. The bond is made stronger by all the individual threads that connect each member of her ward to the others. It makes for a very special family life in Siena, one forged not by blood but by loyalty.
The most successful contrada is the Oca (Goose) ward, which has won more than sixty of the town’s Palio races. Oca is one of four noble districts, earning its title when its citizens fought for the Sienese Republic. The district is located to the west of the Piazza del Campo and used to be a residential area for Sienese dyers.
Enjoy la dolce vita as we take you on a Tuscan culinary journey in Bespoke Traveler Journal: At The Table.
Siena is a fascinating place. How lucky were you to share a slice of local life with your friend! That’s priceless.
Thanks Ana! It is always a treat when one knows friends in a foreign destination who can really show one what life is like there.
Fascinating that each district has its own distinct characteristics, and lucky you to have a local friend help make the city come alive for you. How long did you spend in Siena?
Siena really is a fascinating city, plus with a lot less tourists than Florence, it has a more personal touch. For the three days that I was there, I was indeed lucky to tag along with a local.
We really appreciate those off-the-beaten-path locales too. Siena has been on our radar for a while, and having seen just a bit of Emilia-Romagna earlier this month, I’m also longing to return there. So much to explore…
Isn’t that so true! There are places I would love to go back to and spend more time in, like Venice and Rome, but then so many other unexplored places call….
How wonderful you had this opportunity. I’m like you, though, I’ve moved around quite a bit. When people ask where I’m from, I have to think. Now I say the States, but then when they push me I never know what to say. I grew up in California, spent many years in Colorado, then Massachusetts, now London. Each place has left a mark on me and has shaped me.
It was a great opportunity for me to experience a sliver of Sienese life, TB. It is funny that people still ask that question in the 21st century, but I too feel that each place has shaped me. Travel opens up a tiny bit of different places but living there for awhile certainly has more of an impact.
You were privileged to spend time with your friend’s family, AG. It’s a city I’d love to see (another one!). I have a blogging friend who lives in Siena, and have read about the contradas and the Palio. A fascinating place!
Absolutely, Jo! I love when I know a local with whom I can spend time in a new destination. It makes the trip so much more memorable and I learn a lot more than wandering around on my own! 😀