The place that inspired me

Getting caught up in the exuberance of Siena's Palio helped to put the actor in touch with his Italian roots
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The Independent Travel

It was about 15 years ago, the summer between school and university, and I was touring Italy with some mates.

It was about 15 years ago, the summer between school and university, and I was touring Italy with some mates.

We had been staying with this wonderful Tuscan woman who had let us eat her fantastic food in return for us sanding down a few shutters and talking English to her children. It was their family car we borrowed one morning for the short drive down to Siena.

I knew what to expect of Rome and Florence, but not of Siena, and that was what made it so exciting. Especially since, quite by chance, on the very day we chose to go there, the Palio was going on.

It was early morning when we arrived, but it was immediately clear that something big was about to happen. Siena is a real labyrinth, and every corner we turned there was a strange, exuberant, medieval feeling. There were drums banging and people shouting.

The Palio is so much more than a horse race. It's a massive event for the locals and there's a lot of pride at stake, not least owing to the heavy betting which is a big part of it. It's a fantastic, vibrant spectacle. All the wards have their own symbols and colours and they parade around the city before the event.

They had roped off a bit of the square to make the track. We were standing on a slope in the centre of a crowd of what felt like thousands. Others were hanging out of the windows of restaurants and houses, and the minute the race started they went mad.

The race itself was a short, sharp, intense experience. There were only a couple of laps, but there was lots of jostling and nudging, and a couple of the horses fell.

I can't remember which ward won the race, but the winner carried a blue flag with a fish on it. Afterwards, the horse was paraded through the streets to the banging of drums, and the rider was carried on the shoulders of friends. Then the celebrations really began, and we joined in.

The fact that we were tourists seemed incidental. It was such an exuberant day and night. The Italians can really party, and everybody was very friendly. The atmosphere was intoxicating, not just the beer!

The experience gave me a notion of my roots. My dad is Italian and although I didn't grow up with him, Italy felt very much like home. I've never returned and I don't think I'd want to: it was just so perfect.

Interview by Jonathan Thompson

Mark Strong is currently starring in David Mamet's 'Speed-the-Plow' at the New Ambassadors Theatre. He also appears in 'Anna Karenina' on Channel 4 on 9 May.