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It's September, and Manissero has been supervising her volunteers for over five months now.
One key attack came on August 10, 1275 -- the annual feast day for Alba's patron saint, San Lorenzo. A second affront by Asti in more recent years caused the Albese to devise another such gesture. In front of the cathedral, the Queen of Alba and reigning PodestA? solemnly watch the proceedings from a raised platform, while to the side the palio's jury of 20 laugh and gossip on a stand overlooking the finish line. These 4,000 visitors are just a fraction of the 50,000 tourists who pour into Alba every fall weekend, attracted by a steady stream of events. All this has spawned a new industry -- tourism -- that now acts as the third pillar in Alba's economy, supplementing the chocolate and fabric industries which employ 80 percent of the population, directly or indirectly. The bell sounds, and the first heat starts with a surprise: two donkeys are actually galloping around the track.
As the second group lines up at the starting gate, there's a mean-looking white beast who stands out of the crowd. Patricia Thomson is a regular contributor to PASTA and is president of La Dolce Vita Wine Tours.
The boughs gave birth to the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe – which was first documented in the 16th century. We visited the castle and gardens at Kenilworth, to learn how to recreate this Tudor decoration at home. For the Tudors, evergreen plants had a symbolic value as well as being aesthetically pleasing. Holly has carried Christian symbolism since medieval times, but its association with winter celebrations almost certainly pre-dates Christianity. It is thought that the Druids used holly in pagan rituals during the winter solstice, and interpreted its evergreen colour as a symbol of eternal life.
Rosemary has connections to the Virgin Mary who is symbolised by her blue cloak because of its blue flowers.
Mistletoe is said to increase life and fertility, dating back to an ancient Norse legend. According to custom, the mistletoe must not touch the ground between its cutting and its removal as the last of Christmas greens at Candlemas. Repeat this process to create a second circle of foliage, roughly the same size as the first one. Push one of the circles inside the other at a perpendicular angle, and tie them together at the top and bottom with string – from above and below it should look like an X. Now that the main frame of the bough is complete, add in more holly, berries, mistletoe or rosehips to any gaps or sparse areas using wire or string.
Cut a piece of wire long enough to push through the middle of your piece of fruit with enough left on either side to twist into a loop above it.
Thread another piece of wire or string through the loop and fix it to the top of the bough, so the fruit hangs in the centre. You can also put mistletoe in the centre of your bough. Tradition has it that for each kiss stolen under the bough, a berry was removed – once all the berries were gone, so too were the kisses. Finally, tie a loop of string or ribbon around the top of the bough – make it as long or as short as you need to hang the bough in position in your porch, hallway or as a decoration above the dining table. Queen Elizabeth I gave Kenilworth Castle to one of her favourites at court – Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester in 1563. This winter at Kenilworth, the team will be making traditional swags, wreaths, and boughs to dress the castle in greenery for Christmas.
At Kenilworth Castle you can also scale the heights of the tower built to woo Queen Elizabeth I, enjoy the pretty Elizabethan garden and marvel at the mighty Norman keep. There’s nothing like a really talented minecraft builder to make you feel simultaneously full of awe and embarrassed at your own building skills. This prop, made of cheap flexible plastic, is the centerpiece for San Lorenzo's historical reenactment.
The palio's historical roots go back to a long feud between Alba and the neighboring city of Asti. According to contemporary chronicles, an army of Asti soldiers descended on Alba and ran amuck outside its fortified walls, devastating the vineyards and orchards. The thunderous sound of a hundred drums in the streets causes the heart to quicken and the imagination to race.
The piazza itself has been turned into a racetrack for the day, with dirt and sawdust covering its stone pavement and bales of hay defining its perimeter.


The palio coincides with the beginning of the truffle fair, the famous market and auction that since 1929 has drawn restaurateurs, gourmands, and truffle hunters from far and wide. Alba wears its prosperity well, with swank boutiques flanked by gourmet shops and well-stocked wine stores.
They're concentrating on the donkeys, a somewhat sorry lot of working animals borrowed for the day.
Another rounds the corner, then decides he left something behind and turns around, trotting off in the wrong direction.
At the end, Verney appears on the royal podium, dressed in a fine brocade cloak and gold turban, to announce the official winners. Similar to wreaths, Tudor Christmas boughs were woven from ash or willow wood and then covered in evergreen foliage. This fragrant herb is also associated with remembrance (particularly for the dead) and love. It was here that Dudley attempted to woo the Queen, so the Kissing Bough is an aptly romantic reminder of Kenilworth’s Elizabethan heyday.
Join them on the 12 and 13 December for Christmas at the Castle– a weekend of crafts, storytelling and carols. The castle is open at weekends from 10am – 4pm throughout the winter, and is also open between Christmas and New Year. Awerassed is the name for this sort of emotion, and you better get ready to feel a whole lot of Awerassment as you check out this incredible Steampunk minecraft build that was inspired by Dishonored architecture, but also puts me in mind of Miyazaki’s animation work. For over 20 years, Manissero has been dressing up adults, children, horses, and oxen as president of the borgo of San Lorenzo in preparation for the big event of the year: the Giostra delle Cento Torri, or Tournament of the Hundred Towers. Two sewing machines are humming in the back room, while a woman with a magic marker is painstakingly drawing a design on a swath of silk that will be used to dress a horse for the parade.
This turf war was part of a larger geopolitical struggle that pitted King Charles of France and his allies (like Alba) against the Republic of Genoa and cities on the Po River plains (like Milan and Asti). As a symbolic affront and act of dominance, it raced its horses around the city walls, as it was accustomed to doing at home on its own saint's day of San Secondo. Jockeys from around the area were invited to participate in this festive affair, but when riders from Alba kept winning the race, Asti withdrew its invitation in 1932.
The stones of Alba seem to vibrate as the procession passes, with pounding rows of percussionists followed by troops of sbandieratori, the athletic flag-wavers who hurl colorful banners as high as the medieval rooftops. There's also a food fair organized by the Slow Food association, where visitors can sample a mouth-watering array of cheeses, cured meats, arborio rice, dried porcini mushrooms, and countless other artisan products. The jockeys in the inner circle listen anxiously, stubbing out their cigarettes in the sawdust as Verney first reads off Best Historical Representation.
They were often hung on walls or over doorways as a gesture of goodwill – to welcome guests into the home. Make sure you fix the pieces together firmly with the wire, as this will make the main body of the wreath. This medieval festival, held in the city of Alba on the first Sunday of October, culminates in the Palio degli Asini, a donkey race that is surely Italy's silliest, slowest, and most affectionately regarded contest between four-legged creatures. Manissero is rummaging through the racks of opulent costumes -- silk dresses, heavy brocade cloaks, velvet hats, and all kinds of vestments ornamented with pearls and jewels.
Alba was situated on a primary trade route along the Tanaro River and effectively controlled traffic between the Po region and all points south.
This year there are over a thousand costumed revelers marching through town and into the main piazza -- princesses and lords, peasants and friars, warriors in armor, medieval bagpipers, and sack-clothed beggars, along with carts and catapults and flashing swords.
A few Swiss shout out, then a handful of Austrians, a smattering of French, a fair number of Australians and Japanese, a hearty contingent from the United States, and finally a majority from various parts of Italy. He comes over to check it out, plowing through bales of hay while the press dive for cover. The jockeys, after all, are nonprofessionals from the area -- doctors, lawyers, factory workers. Along with white truffles, Barolo wine, and sinful chocolates, it's one of the best reasons to visit Alba, an ancient town nestled in Piedmont's majestic Langhe hills. Everything is in shades of blue and silver, the colors of this borgo or neighbhorhood, which historically is Alba's most important, being the seat of the duomo or main cathedral, as well as its town hall and most powerful noble families.


It might be the annual harvest, with peasants hauling a wooden cart brimming with vegetables and noisy chickens dangling in wicker cages. So Alba taxed everyone who transferred goods towards southern France or Italy's Ligurian coast.
They announced they would run their own palio, and they'd do it again with donkeys, turning the race's high drama into farce.
Now they can't, because he and two veterinarians personally oversee the donkeys, which are no longer procured by each borgo, but assigned by lottery the morning of the race.
Once all have congregated in the piazza of San Lorenzo, a falconer entertains the throngs with his bird of prey, a precise hunter who drops out of the air and shoots like a bullet between the spread legs and hooped arms of brave volunteers. Farms and vineyards are flourishing, the quality of products keeps improving, and younger generations are now choosing to stay on the farm, reversing a long population drain.
But unlike Asti's high-speed horserace or its more famous cousin in Siena, the risk to man and beast remains low.
More donkeys amble around the turn, as slow and serene as mules pulling a barge down a canal. Within the first 10 seconds of the race, the agitated animal pitches his rider in the dust and dashes off. Screams go up from the blue-and-white crowd, but these are soon drowned out by the red-and-blue throng when it's announced that the borgo of Santa Barbara has taken first place in the palio. There were also plenty of shenanigans surrounding the palio, the banner that the victor keeps as a trophy (from which the race takes its name). Next comes a performance by Alba's sbandieratori, national champions of this uniquely Italian sport, who race around the piazza whirling their flags like matadors and sending them airborne in intricate synchronized patterns. From the donkeys' perspective, the palio is no more than a passegiata, a casual stroll, despite those pesky jockeys flailing on their backs. Meanwhile, an equally obstinate grey donkey takes another tact; he boycotts the proceedings and stands stock still, rooted to the spot. A little speckled donkey obliges with a victory lap, carrying the winning jockey -- Marco Vacchetti, a worker in the Ferrero chocolate factory -- around the ring. Or it might be a specific historical event, like the gift of the Crown of Tessaglia to the Church of San Lorenzo -- the theme that Manissero and her crew picked as this year's spectacle. If a palio was successfully stolen from a borgo's clubhouse, the thieves might demand wine or truffles for its safe return. During their grand finale, silver confetti is released from the unfurled flags and falls like a rain of glittering diamonds. The sprightly beast and its jockey are ushered into the winner's circle, which turns out to be the same as the press ring. His jockey jumps off and pushes, then pulls, then waves goodbye and turns heel, much to the crowd's amusement. As princess, Moretto gets to carry the crown, a token given to Pope Innocent III during the Crusades when feudal lords presented him with the Greek city of Tessaglia. And its caretaker might get the axe, as happened one year when a borgo coordinator was put on mock trial and condemned to have his head cut off for not adequately protecting the palio. Soon those quarters are crowded with reporters, donkeys, and jockeys all bumping together and posing for photos.
In the historical procession, he was paraded through the streets in a stockade with his sentence writ large in Gothic script. They offer porchetta (roasted pork with rosemary and garlic), salami, minestrone, bruschette (toasted bread with toppings). Two officials in sports jackets finally trot over and succeed in pushing the grey protestor over the finish line, then pump their fists wildly in the air to the crowd's cheers. Winners and losers alike head to their borghi to celebrate with a grand Italian feast, where, surrounded by friends, neighbors, and good food, all are fortunati.



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