Piedmont in colour

  • Friday 1 August 2003

Asti, in Piedmont, has kept up its tradition of pageantry and horse racing around the piazza for almost 800 years. RICHARD ROBINSON visits Asti during the Palio and takes a step back in time.

Asti, in Piedmont, has kept up its tradition of pageantry and horse racing around the piazza for almost 800 years. RICHARD ROBINSON visits Asti during the Palio and takes a step back in time.

It is an unlikely marriage, but each September wine and bareback horse racing come together in the streets of Asti. The link between them is tenuous but enduring. Asti's first recorded Palio was in 1275, predating its more famous counterpart in Siena by many years. According to a local historian, the men of Asti 'ran a horse race for their own amusement, beneath the walls of the enemy city of Alba, causing heavy damage and devastation to the vineyards'.

Over the years, the reckless caper at the walls of Alba became a subject of celebration with a competition between factions, re-enacted in the streets of Asti on the day of the city's patron saint. Medieval Asti and Alba, bristling with spindly brick towers, counted themselves enemies and not neighbours, even though just 30km of flat countryside separate the two. The hostility of the past has since become the friendly but deep-rooted rivalry of the present. A little over 100 years ago, Asti staged the country's first national wine exhibition to coincide with the event. Today, the September Palio is the biggest single event in Asti's year and, for the last 36 years, it has also provided the climax to a parallel fortnight-long event – the celebrated Douja d'Or.

The Jug of Gold festival (douja is a small carafe in Piedmontese) brings the finest wine producers of Piedmont together in the courtyards and halls of Asti's Palazzo del Collegio. It is a showcase for their wines, and an opportunity for the visiting crowds and buyers to sample them in convivial surroundings. Music, medieval pageantry and heraldry are seldom out of sight or hearing throughout nearly two weeks of festivities. The night before the Palio, trestle tables are set up the length of certain lamp-lit streets, and beneath the heraldic banners of their ward, neighbourhood societies wine, dine and carouse until way past midnight.

Piedmont, in northwest Italy, descends from the Alps towards the Ligurian Sea, embracing the districts of Langhe, Roero and Monferrato, whose low, rounded hills are etched and combed with the vineyards that produce Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera and Moscato wines.

The summer of 2002 was something of a washout in Piedmont – the exceptional rainfall and unusually low temperatures having conspired to make it a year more suited to the truffle than the vine. One hotelier confides that his stock of house wine has run out because his supplier was devoting all his time to more profitable use, sniffing out the valuable white tartufo tuber. The weather, though, is not allowed to spoil the party, and the people of the province awake to a glorious late summer's morning. From the city wards of San Paolo and San Secondo, from Cattedrale and the outlying towns of Moncalvo and San Damiano, the citizens of the district trickle into town, proclaiming their loyalties by the wearing of colours, heraldic scarves and tunics, to celebrate Palio Day.

Ride on time

In time-honoured fashion, 21 rival wards have entered a horse and rider in the Palio, whose morning begins with a priest's blessing, each at their respective parish church. By mid-morning, the crowds file towards the centre of Asti through streets of balconied townhouses, the noise of the traffic replaced by the babble of eager voices. On the spot where San Secondo, Asti's patron saint, was martyred, a church was raised in the 11th century, and its square named after him. Here on Piazza San Secondo the crowd swells as the first drum roll and trumpet fanfare heighten the sense of anticipation.

The exhibition of sbandieratori – the spectacular hurling and twirling of heraldic flags – complements the Asti Palio as cheese does wine. It is the mandatory curtain-raiser, and a spectacle not to be missed. A battery of red-cloaked drummers approaches, filling the old square with a staccato din, while the flag bearers follow, first marching in parade-ground quadrille, flourishing the banners of their parishes and their wards, hurling them high in the air, catching, swirling and marching. They then give way to the soloists, virtuosos of the flag-wielding fraternity, gymnasts in tights and doublets who could juggle four or five great flags simultaneously, tossing and twirling them, underarm and overarm in a dazzling blur of colour and movement.

After the square finally clears, a few small boys are left fumbling ineffectually with plastic flags, aspiring members of the prestigious ASTA Association of Flag Bearers. A brief interlude follows, time to pop in to Douja d'Or and sample a couple of glasses of wine and enjoy a fleeting lunch – a platter of bread with local cheese and salami. But before long, the crowd has regathered for one of the keynote events of the day – the historical pageant and parade through the streets of Asti, commencing at the cathedral square.

The procession numbers more than 1,200 people, each in sumptuous medieval costume. Kings, queens, jesters, noblemen and serfs. There are horsemen, ox carts, a costumed dog or two and a pair of hooded falcons. Each part of the parade forms a tableau, a related group that illustrates a theme from history or a facet from daily life. Wine is inevitably prominent, sipped from silver goblets; or grapes heaped in wooden hoppers, carried on the backs of field workers, overflowing as a cornucopia.

For two hours the procession passes through the streets of Alba, finally entering the arena of the Palio, the great sand-covered triangle of the Piazza Alfieri. The onlookers take their seats in the stand that has been erected for the occasion and wait while the last of the procession give way to the Captain of the Palio, in Roman garb and mounted on a high-stepping trick pony, accompanied by his equerries.

A water wagon trundles around the course of the Palio, its dampening spray vaporising instantly in the afternoon heat. Rivalry sparks and crackles between the competing factions of the crowd. A great rope, a hand span in thickness, is stretched across the starting line. The first seven horses and riders jostle, a cannon booms, the rope drops and the mounts spring forward, their hooves churning plumes of fine sand that catch the light of the lowering sun. The umpteenth annual Asti Palio is underway.

Richard Robinson is a freelance travel writer.

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