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Siena Contrada Dinner - Cena in Contrada
A neighborhood dinner in Siena - eating and drinking among the contradaioli.
I have lived 35km from Siena all my life and never had a chance to attend a "cena in contrada", a dinner in the contrada, before. For those who do not know what this means, let's start from the obvious: Siena is divided in 17 contrade, quarters named after an animal or a symbol.
We had dinner in the Contrada Sovrana dell'Istrice (the porcupine) by the Porta Camollia, one of the medieval gates of Siena. What it really meant was finding ourselves in a totally "private" party, as if we had been invited to some Sienese home - the only difference being that there were thousands of people having a great time at this party and incredibly enough they all knew each other.
We were invited by my cousin and her husband: their child had been "baptized" a "contradaiolo", a member of the contrada, only few days before. To be a member of the contrada you need to be officially baptized one, with a "semi-religious ceremony". The rituals are those of a religious ceremony but the officiant is a lay person, the head of the contrada. The baptism always happens on the day dedicated to the patron saint of the contrada, in this case, San Bartolomeo. Every contrada has its church, or more than one, its space around the parish for kids to gather, its fountain, its public hall for meetings and activities.
The contrade are a fabulous asset for the city as they take care of their people from childhood to old age. They take care of their horses too. They have a "sacred stable" for the horses that run in the Palio that are taken to the contrada's church and blessed by a priest. I know, it's confusing, people are baptized by some "random guy" and horses are blessed in a church, but this is Siena, and the real Senesi are indeed crazy when it comes to the Palio and their contrada. There is a proverb in Italy that says: "si scherza coi fanti ma non con i santi", literally you can make fun of a simple fellow but not of a saint. Here the jockeys who ride the horses on the Palio day are called fantini (literally, the little guys), well … you don't want to make fun of them either. It is really serious stuff around there, and it is much easier to make fun of the rival contrada's saint!!!
We were invited to this exclusive event so we couldn't possibly miss it. When we arrived, the square opposite the Porta Camollia was completely occupied by long tables with benches: a gigantic village festival but in the amazing frame provided by beautiful Siena. All around the square: stalls selling drinks and snacks, young contradaioli running around in their Contrada dell'Istrice staff t-shirts ready to attend the tables and to work the enormous grill at the opposite corner of the square, a stage with some bands getting ready to play. And lots and lots of bright lights and decorations, the four-color flags (they are proudly the contrada with most colours on their flags) hanging from trees and buildings.
Setting up for the dinner
My cousin's husband Andrea took us for a walk around the contrada. First to the heart of the local life, the "hall", an ancient medieval building with a modern, functional, fully-renovated interior and many rooms for the various activities including a bar. Our guide took great pride in showing us around, including the room with the big TV screen where the contradaioli gather to watch Siena play when their soccer team is not at home. The team plays in the Serie A, the top league, and although these guys are above all Senesi, they are Italian too and they certainly need their weekend dose of soccer!
We walked by the ancient church and the fountain with the porcupine and the contrada motto: sol per difesa io pungo, I only prick to defend myself. A perfect motto to justify the endless riots of the day of the Palio: in the end, you have to defend the pride of your contrada!
We had the end of a table booked for us. Of course, we sat next to 100 other people. We immediately figured out that the dinner is a total excuse: you don't go to these events to eat good food, you go to meet your fellow contradaioli, to drink and sing, to have fun and be loud, possibly to brag about your contrada's last horse or palio performance, and maybe to have a fight with some other proud contradaiolo that disagrees with your opinions. But like in every great love story, you only fight to then make up, and this is exactly what these contradaioli do, they fight to have a plausible excuse to make up in front of a good glass of wine. Rosso di Montalcino, of course.
Friends and neighbors at the dinner
The dinner goes on among a chorus of "brindisino la la la la la la…" (brindisi means "a toast"), loud laughs and lots of pork meat! The dinner is just the "entrée" though, as the real party starts when everybody stands up and the tables are moved away from the middle of the square. Ammazzacaffè after ammazzacaffè (literally, shots of liqueur that "kill" the coffee, such as grappa, limoncello, amaro and the like) and the square becomes a dance floor. The remaining tables also become dance floors! And the party goes on as late as the last contradaiolo can stand, or at least crawl.
Dinner becomes a street party
It is a real street party for all the people of the quarter: children, teenagers, adults and elderly people. Nobody wants to miss it because the money collected goes to pay for the contrada's activities. Who knows, maybe next year, our 40 Euro will help Istrice buy a good spot at the canapo, the starting-line of the Palio.
We, the guests, the outsiders, left early, around midnight, happy to have been invited to participate in such a large private family party, because that's what it was: fellow contradaioli are like a big, rowdy family. And while we drove away, leaving the ancient medieval gate, Porta Camollia, behind us, we could still hear the contradaioli della contrada sovrana dell'istrice toast happily to the next Palio.
© Casina di Rosa, 2007
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