Alba’s Donkey Palio – Palio degli Asini – 1st October 2017
This weekend sees the running of the Donkey Palio in Alba. It’s not a joke – or rather it is! Dating back to medieval times, Italy has several Palios, most notably those of Sienna and Asti. However Alba has been banned from the Asti Palio as they kept winning so, in memory of years ago when they held a donkey Palio to poke fun at the Astigiani, they now have this as an annual event, a precursor to the Truffle Fair.
For weeks beforehand the 9 different districts of the city decorate the streets with banners displaying their colours along the roads. Then on the first Sunday of October, the representatives of the various districts, dressed in medieval costume, gather in the cathedral square to draw lots for their assigned beasts of burden. No cheating here, it’s a total lottery for who gets what.
Then in the afternoon, the various “borghi” process through the streets, again in medieval costume with the procession headed by the flag throwers or sbandieri who throw their flags high into the air to unfurl at the highest point. This is synchronised so all the flags unfurl together. A quite breathtaking spectacle to the accompaniment of drums.
Once everyone is assembled in Piazza Medford, the Palio begins with various heats leading to a final run-off. Don’t worry, the donkeys are not ill-treated, no hitting or using sharp objects to make them go faster. They do what they want, the odd one going forward as you may expect but others turning and going backwards, sitting down and refusing to budge. In fact it’s the riders that get the worst of the deal and these days they tend to wear cycle shorts to help stop chaffing from the animals rough coat!
The locals cheer and shout wildly and all in all it’s a really fun time. The Palio itself is a painted cloth and as well as winning this, the winning area of the city has 12 months to poke fun at their rivals. If you go, you’ll need to book seats to watch the Palio but all the fun beforehand is totally free to watch.