The first of September always comes with a slight feeling of dread: the back to school panic and the sneaking fear that this might be the end of summer. However, in Montepulciano, one of the loveliest towns on our gourmet tour of Tuscany, today is one of the most anticipated days of the year- the day of the Bravio delle Botti race. Each year (usually on the last Sunday in August) the eight contrade (districts) of Montepulciano enter a fiercely fought contest to win the city’s “Bravio” a cloth depicting St John the Beheaded, the town’s patron saint. This is Montepulciano equivalent to Siena’s palio, and is the culmination of a week of events celebrating Montepulciano’s traditions.
The race was once run on horseback, but abandoned to preserve public order. Today, each contrade selects two fit and strong pushers to roll an 80kg wine barrel over one kilometre through the winding streets of the town. Needless to say, as a typical Tuscan hilltop town, the course is hardly an easy one. The race starts with the tolling of the church bells and heads through winding roads which are almost impossibly steep- in places they’re so narrow that it’s impossible to overtake (even if you had the energy to!) Almost hardest of all is piloting in the barrels down the downhill stretches. Along the way, most of the town is out to cheer the pushers along, and heraldic flags flutter in the streets. Finally though, the race ends in front of the Duomo, and celebrations last long into the night.