Saturday, August 31, 2013

Fez Gourmet Restaurants Reopen After Summer Break

Good news for lovers of fine food. Two of the top restaurants in Fez are set to reopen after having taken an August break. The Ruined Garden opens on September the fifth and Dar Roumana on September third

Dar Roumana - a gourmet delight

The Ruined Garden - fine food and great ambiance

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Friday, August 30, 2013

Martin Pearson Entertains in Fez

A house concert in Fez last night was attended by a wonderfully diverse audience - Moroccans, Austrians, Russians, Germans, Argentinians, Italians, New Zealanders, Britons and Australians. The concert featured folk music, comedy and even some Australian bush poetry.

The fine acoustics in the riad courtyard provided the perfect setting for Pearson's music which included some fine unaccompanied singing and a beautiful rendition on the notoriously difficult low D whistle, of Both sides of the Tweed written by Dick Gaughan.

Martin with the Overton low whistle in D

While some may have had difficulty following the complexities of his joke-laden chats, his humour and warmth needed no translation. When, as an encore, he launched into Cohen's wonderful Hallelujah, the audience were captivated, even more so when he substituted "hallelujah" with the Arabic "humdullilah" - it was a touching and fitting conclusion to another wonderful concert at Riad Zany.

The next Riad Zany concert is expected to be in early October

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Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A Day Trip from Fez - Into the Mountains and the Azrou Market Day

The city of Fez is perfectly located for use as a base to explore the countryside and towns in the region. Yesterday The View from Fez tagged along with two visiting Australians as they travelled to the "Tuesday Market" in the Middle Atlas town of Azrou

The Amazigh (Berber) name, Azrou, means "great rock" owing to a strange volcanic outcrop just outside the western edge of the town. As the town is at 1250 metres, it can be chill so go prepared. While the day was warm and clear, it was easy to imagine the cold the region must experience in winter when it is buried beneath deep snowdrifts. The highway has several snow barriers that are used to stop motorists when the road is impassible.

Just 89 kilometres from Fez, Azrou is in the heart of the Middle Atlas, close to the ski fields and the university and holiday town of Ifrane.

Azrou town centre
The road to Azrou has spectacular views

The country markets take place on the same day every week and each market is named for the day on which it occurs. It is said that on any given day there are over 800 markets taking place throughout Morocco.

Singer/songwriter Martin Pearson and Alex Prior teamed up with Rachida El Joukh to explore the markets and it was only minutes before Alex was discovering that (with a bit of bargaining) the caftans and djellaba's were inexpensive enough for her to buy several,

Rachida and Alex hunt down bargains
"This purple is fine... but pink? No"
"But this orange is stunning"

Meanwhile, in the Oak and Cedar forests there was a variety of wildlife...

Martin Pearson taking a stroll in the forest

Martin Pearson will be giving his only concert in Morocco at Riad Zany on Thursday night  (see details here)


If you have the money, then hiring a car and driver for the day is a good option and will cost around 850 dirhams for the day. A grand-taxi will cost 30 dirham a seat. There are also six buses (around 20 dirham) from Fez to Azrou every day. If you are traveliing by car, go via Imouzzer and take a coffee break in to the resort and university town of Ifrane. Most of the tour parties stop at the first hotel (Les Chamoix), but we would suggest going a little further into the town and trying one of the more reasonably priced cafes. Ifrane is a little like a European alpine village and the architecture will remind you an Austrian mountain village.

For more information, contact Plan-it-Fez

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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Photo of the Day ~ How to Thank Your Staff

How do you thank your staff for a year's hard work running one of the top guesthouses in Morocco? If you are the owners of a riad like Riad Laaroussa, you close your business for a a week and take all the staff on vacation. Last year it was to Paris, this year to Istanbul.

Riad Laaroussa staff on holiday in Istanbul

And it is not just the executive staff and managers, it is everyone, including the riad's driver and the "carossa man" - the luggage carrier.

The original plan had been to take the staff to New York, but they ran foul of the overly-paranoid American officials who refused visa's for a majority of the staff members, and so, instead of calling the holiday off, Fred Sola, Riad Laaroussa's owner, switched the venue to Turkey and departed on August the 11th for a week in Istanbul.

Rather than staying in some cheap hotel, they rented a beautiful colonial house "Villa Naya" on the gorgeous Princess Island, just thirty minutes from the heart of Istanbul. Every day commuting by boat to explore the city was a delight.

Together they explored the Blue mosque, Sainte Sophie and the Grand Bazar, where the women spent most of their time bargaining like mad to buy clothes.

For many this was their first trip on a plane and all found it exciting and rewarding. It was also remarkable how they adapted to such an open-minded culture with opportunities to dress in modern clothes. And an eye-opener that many people in Turkey did not even observe Ramadan fasting.

After so many great moments together everyone is back at work, motivated and preparing for the holiday next year. Hopefully more riad owners will learn the lesson from Riad Laaroussa that a happy staff is the secret of a great guesthouse.

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Monday, August 26, 2013

Visiting Performer Plunges into Fez Medina Happenings

One of the wonderful things about living in the Fez Medina is the exposure to the amazing number of events that take place every day. When singer-songwriter, Martin Pearson arrived in Fez, prior to his concert this coming Thursday night, he was unprepared for the whirlwind of happenings. 

Baby-naming events are not Martin's usual gigs! 

Within the space of twenty-four hours Martin and his travelling companion Alex Pryor, had toured the Medina, experienced a traditional Moroccan wedding parade, drank mint tea in Seffarine to the percussive music of the coppersmiths, been taken by the hand through the Medina by an eight year old boy and had supper with a Moroccan family. Then at nine-thirty this morning they took part in a baby-naming ceremony for the new daughter of well known restaurant owner Thami.

Martin Pearson, Alex Pryor and their young guide Si Mohammed
The proud mother shows off her baby daughter

Alex Pryor, who hails from Melbourne Australia, was almost speechless, "It hasn't even been 24 hours and already I have experienced so much joy from experiencing the culture, the sights, colours and smells that make Morocco what it is. Every corner, every face... and the food..."

Martin Pearson was impressed with the acoustics at Riad Zany, but is still pondering which songs he will sing as many in the audience will be Moroccan with limited English. "Maybe the more melodic songs," he said.

Martin checks out the acoustics at Riad Zany

Martin Pearson will be performing on Thursday night at Riad Zany at 8.30pm. Entry is by donation and an escort service will be provided to bring people to the Riad. The meeting place at 8-815pm will be Cinema Amal in Rcif.

For further information and to book a seat (seating is limited) please contact The View from Fez via our contact page .

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Morocco and the Question of Corruption

It is quite normal to hear both Moroccans and ex-pats complaining about corruption in Morocco. Indeed, listening to the stories, one could be forgiven for thinking that Morocco was the home of corruption. This is far from the truth. Almost every country in the world suffers from corruption of one form or another

What constitutes corruption is often disguised in so-called developed countries under different names - lobbying, white-collar crime, insider-trading, but is corruption nevertheless.

More than half of people surveyed by Transparency International believe the level of corruption in their countries has increased over the past two years, according to the world's largest public opinion survey on the subject.

The 2013 global corruption barometer surveyed 114,270 people in 107 countries. Unlike the better-known corruption perceptions index, which relies on expert opinion, this project surveys the public on their views and experiences of corruption.

More than one in four respondents (27%) said they paid a bribe over the past 12 months when accessing key public institutions and services. Of those who reported paying a bribe, 40% said they did so "to speed things up"; 27% said "it was the only way to obtain a service", while 21% said they paid a bribe "as a gift, or to express gratitude". The remaining 12% of respondents said it was "to get a cheaper service".

Corruption is, by definition, difficult to measure. Transparency International's surveys are among the few sources of data on the subject, though they focus largely on perception. Now in its eighth edition, this year's survey is the largest of its kind and includes some countries, such as Libya and Tunisia, for the first time.

Other key findings from the survey:

• Political parties are considered the most corrupt institution, followed by the police and the judiciary. Globally, religious institutions are seen as least corrupt. In Israel, Japan, Sudan and South Sudan, however, religious bodies were seen to be highly corrupt.

• Nearly two-thirds of respondents said they believe personal contacts and relationships help get things done in the public sector in their country. In 10 countries, including Israel, Italy, Malawi, Russia and Vanuatu, this figure was more than 80%.

• In 2008, 31% of respondents said their government's efforts to fight corruption were effective. This year that figure fell to 22%.

• In the UK, the media and political parties were rated most corrupt and 5% of people surveyed reported paying a bribe.

• Wealthier respondents reported paying bribes more often than their poorer counterparts. Of those with income above their country's average, 31% said they paid a bribe last year, compared with 26% of respondents with below average income.

• Globally, 28% of men reported paying a bribe, compared with 25% of women. In some countries, such as Nepal and Pakistan, many more men reported paying bribes than women. In Colombia, meanwhile, 27% of women reported paying bribes compared with only 16% of men.

Denmark, Finland, Japan, Australia were tied for the least bribe-ridden country, with only 1 percent of respondents in each country admitting to paying bribes.

In the United States, roughly 1 in 14 people said they paid off officials. Of those, 7 percent said they bribed the police, 11 percent said they bribed educators and 15 percent said they bribed judges. Americans also said they saw political parties as the most corrupt public institution, with 76% of respondents stating that parties were affected by corruption.

In 36 countries, respondents named the police the most corrupt institution.

And some good news...

Samir Bennis, writing for Morocco World News was able to report sone good news when a Police Chief of Safi ordered the arrest of his own son

Due to the deep-rooted corruption of some officials in Morocco and the limp state of the judicial system, people are used to hear stories of the ‘sons of’ who escape prosecution following the crimes they commit against other underprivileged Moroccans.  Morocco World News has reported several such stories of power abuse to the detriment of the image of Morocco. However, the image is not that dim since there remains honorable officials who are unconditionally dedicated to the people, justice and the common good.

In a rare incident, the police chief of the city of Safi gave orders to his services to place his son under custody and begin a preliminary investigation before introducing him to the office of the Public Prosecutor. The unprecedented decision of the father came after his son caused a traffic accident while driving his sister’s car along with a girl. The reckless son, inattentive where he steers, crushed a young man causing serious injuries and the amputation of both legs.

According to Al Massae daily newspaper, which reported the news in its issue of Friday, August 23, the case caused great embarrassment to the police of Safi because it involved the son of their chief. However, the later was exemplary when he gave his strict orders in favor of justice against his own son, reminding us of ideal characters in Bollywood films.

In custody with other defendants at the police cell, the son will be presented to the court for charges of breaching the traffic code and inflicting injuries on others and causing a permanent disability.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts To Open in 2016

David Chipperfield design concept

North Africa’s patchy museum scene is set to be enhanced with a new purpose-built museum dedicated to photography based in Morocco. The Marrakech Museum for Photography and Visual Arts, designed by the leading British architect David Chipperfield, is due to be built near the 12th-century Menara Gardens and is scheduled to open in 2016.

“The museum will focus its collecting across three genres of photography and lens-based media, both static and moving: architecture and design; photojournalism; fashion and culture,” says a press statement. On the issue of funding, a project spokeswoman would only say that the museum would be supported by a number of “private and corporate backers”.

The museum plans to launch a scholarship programme in partnership with the University of Arizona, enabling Moroccan students to take museum studies courses at institutions worldwide.

Meanwhile, museum officials have set up a temporary exhibition space that is due to open next month at the Badii Palace (pictured above)  in the centre of Marrakech with a display of ten contemporary Moroccan photographers including Hicham Gardaf and Leila Sadel.

The show is sponsored by the luxury hotel chain Sofitel. An exhibition of works by photographers from the high-profile Magnum agency follows in early November.

Text Gareth Harris.

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Thursday, August 22, 2013

Morocco's King Delivers Powerful Call For Better Education

Said Temsamani, writing for the Eurasia Review, reports that the Moroccan King, Mohammed VI, has delivered an astonishingly strong address on the need to improve education in the Kingdom.

 "Courses should not be factories that produce unemployable graduates" - Mohammed VI

On August 20, Morocco celebrated the 60th anniversary of the Revolution of the King and the People together with the King’s birthday.On this occasion, King Mohammed gave a very powerful speech where he criticised the current Moroccan government’s failed policy to develop an educational strategy that will enable young Moroccans to integrate successfully the world society of knowledge and thus become well educated citizens that will contribute efficiently to the development of their own nation in various fields.

The King said “The education sector is facing many difficulties and problems. They are mostly due to the adoption of some syllabi and curricula that do not tally with the requirements of the job market,”. He added “Another reason has to do with the disruptions caused by changing the language of instruction from Arabic, at the primary and secondary levels, to some foreign languages, for the teaching of scientific and technical subjects in higher education. Accordingly, students must be provided with the necessary linguistic skills so that they may fully benefit from training courses,”.

The King hailed the excellent results achieved in the fields of vocational, handicraft and technical training. “Specialized two to four-year training courses are available in these areas, both to baccalaureate and non-baccalaureate holders, and those who graduate from these courses have more opportunities to find a job directly and quickly and start a professional career,” he said.

However, the King focused on the fact that Moroccan education decision makers should focus on the future, not just the present: Many of today’s job titles, and the skills needed to fill them, simply did not exist 20 years ago. Education systems need to consider what skills today’s students will need in future and teach accordingly. “Educational institutions which provide such courses should not be factories that produce unemployable graduates, particularly in certain obsolete subjects,” He added that “Moroccans should be encouraged to master foreign languages, expand their knowledge base, refine their skills and gain the competence needed to be able to work in Morocco’s new professions and areas of employment where there is a significant shortage of skilled workers.”

King Mohammed VI also called on the government to pay further attention to vocational training and to the rehabilitation of technical and manual work, which are becoming increasingly important in the Moroccan job market and “provide a major source of income as well as a means for the achievement of a dignified life.”

“Considering the current state of the education and training sector, we need to pause, assess achievements and pinpoint shortcomings and inadequacies.

“I wish to stress, in this respect, the importance of the National Charter for Education and Training, which was adopted through a broad-based national participatory approach.

“Successive governments have all worked on the implementation of this charter, particularly the last one, which deployed all the necessary means and resources to implement the Emergency Programme. However, it only engaged in this process during the last three years of its mandate,” he said.

“Unfortunately, the gains made since this programme’s implementation was started have not been consolidated. On the contrary, some of its basic components, namely aspects related to syllabus change, primary school curriculum and high schools of excellence, have been dropped, without consulting or coordinating with the parties concerned,” he stressed.

King Mohammed was very critical of the present government for not assuring a follow up of previous government’s positive policies to promote a better educational system.

“The current government should have capitalized on the positive experience gained in the field of education and training, especially as this is a crucial project that will span several decades,” he said. “It hardly makes sense for each government to come with a new plan every five years, and disregard previous programmes, particularly as no government will ever have the time, during a single mandate, to fully implement its project. The education sector should, therefore, not be included in the sphere of purely political matters, nor should its management be subjected to outbidding tactics or party politics. Rather, it should be part of a cultural, economic and social approach aimed at training and preparing human resources who can be incorporated into a dynamic development process, through an efficient education system,” he added.

He also expressed his concern to see many Moroccan families obliged to put their kids in foreign or private schools and pay high fees that usually go beyond their financial possibilities. “I am indeed sad to note that the state of education is worse now than it was twenty years ago,” he said. “As a result, and in spite of their limited resources, a large number of families are compelled to pay huge fees for their children to study in foreign schools or private education institutions in order to avoid the pitfalls of the state school and enrol their children in an efficient system,” he added. In fact, parents want their children to have a good education; pressure from them for change should not be seen as a sign of hostility but as an indication of something possibly amiss in provision.

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A Bizarre Project Aimed to Teach Moroccans How to Make Pottery

Millions of dollars being spent on teaching Moroccans to make pottery? At first glance it looked like a joke. But no, on further investigation it turned out to be at least partially true. The idea that Morocco, famous for its pottery needed lessons would seem both fanciful and patronising. Yet pottery lessons were set up, a translator hired and classes got underway...

Things did not go well. Even with millions of dollars in the budget the translator was second rate and failed to understand the English pottery teacher's language and the teacher tried to impose techniques that required materials not available in Morocco. It would have made a mildly amusing comedy sketch
This woeful tale of misguided US aid, came to light when former Georgia Secretary of State and U.S. Senate candidate Karen Handel started an “Only in Washington” website highlighting government waste. Handel posted this item on Aug. 7, 2013.

Former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel has taken her campaign to rein in wasteful government spending to another level. Handel began a daily blog, titled "Only in Washington," detailing alleged wastefulness by the federal government. Handel said. "While Morocco is no doubt a lovely place, we have families in Georgia that are being hurt by high taxes fuelling out of control spending … What’s worse is that the program was deemed a failure …," she continued.

Almost $27 million for pottery classes? And in Morocco, renowned for its ceramics?
A key part of the project included training Moroccans to create pottery to sell domestically as well as internationally
The investigative website,  PolitiFact, took a look at Handel's claims and found them to be more than a slight distortion of the facts.

According to PoltiFact, much of the background about Handel's claim originated from a similar aggregation of alleged wasteful federal government spending done by U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn. Each year, the Republican senator from Oklahoma releases an oversight report of "unnecessary, duplicative and low-priority projects spread throughout the federal government" in a document called the Wastebook.

Coburn’s Wastebook 2012 highlights the pottery classes as an example of wasteful spending, but notes that only part of the $27 million of a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project went toward the classes.

In 2009, USAID began a $30 million, four-year plan to help increase the economic competitiveness of Morocco. The plan included five projects, with the Morocco Economic Competitive Project accounting for $27 million, or 90 percent of the overall plan. The Competitive Project, scheduled to run through Sept. 30, 2013, initially included a provision for a $7 million, one-year extension. But because of anticipated budget cuts, a change in mission strategy, complications with the task order and poor implementation of some activities, it is unlikely the project will be extended, according to a December 2011 audit report by a federal inspector general.

The initial goals of the project were to improve the country's business climate, work on ways to use water sustainably for agricultural growth and strengthen workforce development. A key part of the project included training Moroccans to create pottery to sell domestically as well as internationally.

But the pottery program was riddled with problems that verge on the surreal.  For example, a translator hired to translate the instructions from an English-speaking pottery trainer to Arabic-speaking attendees was not fluent in English, which resulted in communication breakdowns. Also, some of the materials used by the pottery trainer were unavailable in Morocco, and participants were unable to replicate the projects. The pottery trainer was seemingly unaware of Moroccan artisanal skill with ceramics.

Ultimately, the audit found that the pottery portion of the competitiveness project was poorly implemented, had limited impact and its intended focus on women and youths was not fulfilled.

It seems astounding that the well-meaning folks in Washington didn't do a little research before designing the program. Even a cursory investigation would have shown them that Moroccan pottery is a reflection of the history of the country. The duality between the Berber heritage and Moorish influence is seen in the techniques, patterns and decorations that adorn the clay objects.

Since the 19th century, artists such as Mohammed Langassi and Boujmaa El Lamali have perpetuated this ancestral craft by giving it a new dimension, propelling the Moroccan pottery to acclaim worldwide.

Very early in the history of mankind clay was used to make utilitarian objects. Since Neolithic times, the Berbers have manufactured rustic pottery using the technique of coiling, a manufacturing process widespread in the Mediterranean basin.

Not until the 5th century BC during Carthaginian rule did the technique spread furrther. With the Roman era (2nd century BC -7th century AD.) the processes were refined and terra sigillata, pots and objects began to be glazed.

Moroccan glazed ceramics date from 814 AD. At that time Idriss II, welcomed thousands of immigrants to Fez from Cordoba among whom were experienced craftsmen skilled in the art.

There are several major categories of Moroccan pottery - town pottery,  primarily the magnificent ceramics manufactured in Fez, Safi and Salé. Then there is distinctive pottery from the rural north and south of Morocco, which were for designed for utilitarian purposes such as cooking and storing water or olive oil.

We respectfully suggest that the Moroccan government allocates some money to send some Moroccan artisans (and a good translator) to the USA to teach them how to make pottery. It certainly would cost a fraction of what the Americans spent.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Silver Passion in Tiznit For The Silver Festival

The Moroccan city of Tiznit is hosting the fourth edition of the Timizart silver festival, which runs through August 24.

Opening yesterday with the theme ''Silver: passion, creation and development'', the festival aims to promote Tiznit as a tourist destination by highlighting local craft and design skills. These have been handed down through the ages and are a symbol of its civilization, one which can be leveraged for economic development.

The festival includes a fair displaying silverware and other silver products, demonstration workshops, a fashion show featuring traditional clothes and jewellery, equestrian and other traditional shows, and academic conferences on the anthropological aspects of the amazigh civilisations.

Organizers hope to replicate the success of Timizart's third edition, which was attended by 200,000 people. There are more than 150 shops and workshops involved in silver production in the city.

Located near the coast, Sultan Moulay Hassan settled in Tiznit in 1881 to exert his control over dissident Berber tribes of the Souss. In 1912, Ahmed al-Hiba (El Hib), a populist rebel overthrew the French government and proclaimed himself sultan of Tiznit in the town's mosque. He conquered the Sous by uniting the tribes of the Anti Atlas Mountains and the Tuareg. He went on to attack Marrakech but was suppressed by the French.

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Beating the Heat in Fez ~ An extreme Option ~ Go to a Horse Race in Italy!

With temperatures in Morocco set to continue in the high 30s (Celsius) people are going to great lengths to stay cool - including taking a weekend break out of the country. In the last in our series on chilling out during the heatwave, our regular correspondent, Vanessa Bonnin, is joined by Kura Perkins in the Italian city of Siena for a horse race like no other in the world. Vanessa Bonnin and Kura Perkins report

While it may be too late this year, one way to beat the August heat in Fes is to jump on a cheap flight to Pisa, Italy – the gateway to Tuscany. It’s summer there too, but with temperatures in the low to mid thirties and soothing landscapes like the Chianti region’s rolling hills, it feels a lot cooler. Another reason to go - twice every year in Tuscany one of the oldest horse races in the world, the Siena Palio, takes place.

Far from a tourist event, Il Palio is a Tuscan tradition. This is no ordinary horse race; it is bareback, there is no betting and the track is a grand medieval piazza – the Piazza del Campo – that dates back to 1292. To the outsider it might seem that horses just run three times around an awkwardly shaped racetrack, but this race is steeped in history, politics, rivalry and the everyday existence of the Sienese people.

To be able to really understand Il Palio, it is necessary to understand the contrade, Siena’s 17 rival city districts. For over five centuries, they have played a vital role in the city’s life and in the organisation of Il Palio.

Aquila (eagle) contrada flag bearers practice their routines in car parks around the town

Each contrada owns a geographical area within the city walls and has its own government, coat of arms, official festivities, and patron saints. Contrade are identified by their name, often taken from an animal (turtle or snail, for example) and distinctive emblem and colours.

Two weeks before the race the streets that lead to the Piazza del Campo are adorned with the crested flags and decorative streetlights of the district. You can see the Alfieri (flag wavers) of each contrada practising their complex routines for the pre-race procession – their giant flags sweeping through the air and spinning beneath their legs as they try to perfect the highlight move: spearing the flags many metres into the air to be caught by their partner deftly with their arm hooked under their leg.

Aquila banners above and  Onda (the wave)  below

The annual Il Palio events are the result of a year of preparation by the contrade. It is a chance to prove their might against one another, and to sure up long-standing vengeances with archrivals.

Only ten contrade can take part in each race, held on two days; July 2 and August 16. Seven contrade are automatically entered and the last three names are taken from a hat. Professional bareback riders are commissioned by each contrada in advance of the race but their horses are drawn randomly.

Many hours before the race takes place at 7pm, crowds start to fill the piazza. To secure a position next to the barriers with a good view, it is necessary to camp out from the early afternoon. The wealthier Sienese have the luxury of either booking a seat in the stands (around 400 euros each) or have friends with access to an apartment with balcony overlooking the crowds below. Mixing with the throng in the centre is part of the experience – sociable and convivial until an hour before the race when gritty determination becomes necessary to hold on to your spot!

To keep the crowds entertained, three hours before the race a major historical pageant in medieval dress begins, called the Corteo Storico. Each contrada parades around the dirt track in a colourful array of costumes, ranging from full suits of armour to harlequin-style outfits. The participants seem to be exclusively male, however with the addition of the very feminine medieval wigs worn by many, it is sometimes hard to tell. No one in the parade smiles – perhaps it is considered more dignified when wearing the ultimate fancy dress costume in public.

This pageant is where the flag wavers get to show off their carefully choreographed routines, leaping and twirling with the pride of their contrada resting on their shoulders. The flag wavers also take part in a competition just before the race where according to superstition, the contrada who throws their flag the highest is said to win the race.

The culmination of the parade is the arrival of a large wagon drawn by four white oxen. The wagon carries trumpeters in costume and various dignitaries, but most importantly the trophy – a large silk banner, the ‘Il Palio’ of the race name depicting the Madonna of the Assumption – they are all competing for. As the banner is slowly paraded around the race track, everyone waves their teams flag at it for luck, creating a ripple effect throughout the huge crowd like thousands of colourful butterflies. The banner is then hoisted onto the balcony that holds the city officials, the circuit is cleared of people and the dirt track is swept to perfection.

Heading to the start line

Finally, the moment we’ve all been waiting for arrives – the horses and riders emerge and make their way to the starting area.

Silence descends as the police carry a secure draw of the starting order to the race-starter. Il Palio cannot begin until all riders are within the two starting ropes, so the contrada drawn last controls the start of the race. Although unlikely to win, this contrada will walk away the richest as a result of bribes. There is an element of luck in Il Palio however, as long in advance of the race strategies are plotted and inter-contrada allegiances are formed. Wheeling and dealing continues right up to when the starting gun fires.

Awaiting the last horse to enter the ropes L-R Torre (Tower), Tartuca (Tortoise), Lupa (She-wolf), Onda (Wave), Bruco (Caterpillar) and Oca (Goose)

Contrada captains can be seen having furious, hushed conversations at the start line. While it may appear the tenth horse is disobediently avoiding the start-line, this is a deliberate stalling tactic while jostling takes place between allied contrade, eager to secure a favourable starting position as a result of the timing of the last horse’s entry.

The horses line up again and again, going in and out of the start ropes. The jockey in tenth position keeps one eye on the start line and the other on his contrada captain. This un-nerving part of the race has been known to take 45 minutes in some years.

Tension rises, contrade scream at one another waving fists, school children chant and the crowd shouts vai, vai, vai!’ (go, go, go!).

The race is underway

Just when the wait becomes unbearable, the ropes suddenly drop and they’re off! The race involves only three laps around the track, but with sharp turns and no saddles, it can be dangerous for both horse and rider and jockeys often fall. The race is over within 75 seconds.

Almost losing it on the most dangerous corner

This August, Onda (the Wave) won the banner (Il Palio) and the glory. Crowds immediately jump the barriers and stream onto the track, the winning contrada members climb the balcony to claim the trophy and another parade – this time with smiling and emotional people delightedly waving flags – begins. The parties in the streets will last all night.

The winning horse - Onda contrada

Preparations for the following year’s Il Palio begin the next day. But for those yearning to enjoy the event again, Siena has a TV station that shows re-runs all day, every day throughout the year – alternatively, it is possible to watch the James Bond film Quantum of Solace featuring a major action sequence set in the middle of Il Palio.

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