Palio: Better than soccer? It has been a competitive journey. Last week in Siena, I returned to the fabled Palio race, one of the most passionate civic sporting events in the history of civilization. And traipsing around Italy and Istanbul this month, I have followed, and been followed by, the World Cup frenzy that grips those parts of the globe that don't send dumb-ass Texans and their villainous veeps to the White House. As I packed up in my Rome hotel room, preparing for the next day's homeward flight, I experienced one last burst of European-style fervor -- Germany vs. Italy in the semi-final. At the same moment that millions of hometown German fans had their party balloons popped by a well-aimed Italian ball, the streets of the Eternal City exploded. In my secret heart of hearts, hidden from my neighbours, I had been praying for a German victory. I faced an early-morning alarm and a very long flight next day. I knew what an Italian win would mean. Sure enough, the screaming and honking and "po, po-po-po-po-po, po"-ing continued far into the sleepless night. This last activity requires explanation. The "Po-po" is a new Italian football chant based on the White Stripes hit, "Seven Nation Army." Think of that song's plodding guitar riff, then sing it, using "po" for each note. That's what Italian football star Francesco Totti did when the White Stripes appeared at the San Remo festival, which was emceed by Totti's wife. There he was in the front row, captured on camera, yowling out, "Po, po-po-po-po-po, po..." Soon there were "Po-po-po..." T-shirts. Italian football fans embraced their hero's howling. A particularly obnoxious football chant was born and, worse, led the way to Italy's ultimate triumph on Sunday. Soulful horse racing The World Cup was not all good. Nor is the great Palio all sweetness and light. An ancient bareback horse race that has gripped Siena with sectarian passions for almost nine centuries, the Palio pits 17 neighbourhood tribes called contrade against each other in a twice-annual contest that has become an expression of the city's soul. As souls go, it's a lively bugger. This July's version saw a skirmish at the tratta, a pre-race lottery at which contrade are assigned their horses. Two rival contrades, one disappointed with their lot and one a little too pleased, crossed paths, then swords. Water bottles, anyway. No one hurt. Bleacher tickets to the July 2 Palio cost upwards of 300 Euros (about $425 Cdn), and even at that are nearly impossible to get. For the rest of us, the price of admission was nothing more than waiting in the hot sun of the Campo for five hours, the last three squeezed tight in a prison of sickly, perfumed flesh. But the eventual race made it worthwhile (possibly -- it's true that between 5 and 8 p.m. I prayed for death frequently). The greatest shame in the Palio is to finish second -- it's considered losing, and is infinitely worse than finishing last -- and aside from winning, the greatest joy is to see your enemy finish second. This race saw the steed of the Aquila contrada jump to a big early lead. On the first lap, three jockeys slammed off a padded wall as their mounts continued on, riderless (a common occurrence here). Aquila continued to lead handily into the third and final lap. But as the final turn approached, so did the horse of Pantera, Aquila's bitter rival. It was a gutsy move -- to challenge late and risk finishing second means disaster. The Aquila jockey, perhaps overconfident, rounded the turn in mid-track. Pantera grabbed the inside and surged down the straightaway. Aquila's rider whipped his horse, then in desperation turned to whip Pantera's jockey. Too late. Metres from the finish, Pantera stole the lead. Aquila had sunk from glory to disgrace in a heartbeat -- and at the hands of their hated enemy. Italian halftime show So it's been a sporty sort of voyage. It may occur to you that, what with all the World Cup-watching, perhaps I was missing out on some of the glory of Italy. An incident in Tuscany the previous week reinforces the idea. At the charming Vecchio Asilo hotel outside the Tuscan town of Ulignano, I had been in my room watching Mexico play Argentina. By halftime, twilight was falling. I was wasting a fine evening. Out I went to walk -- but where? The hotel was pretty much in the middle of nowhere. Then I spotted the opening of a country lane. It descended away from the road, with a wooded slope on one side and cultivated fields rolling out to the left. And all over those fields, and speckled throughout those dark woods, thousands upon thousands of fireflies. I've seen them in the Manitoba countryside, but those poor lovelorn buggers don't know what they're missing. This was a veritable firefly disco. They sparkled in the woods and over the fields like flashbulbs on a Hollywood red carpet. Except that Hollywood would never get it right -- the violins would spoil everything. Fireflies are subtler and yet more magnificent than cinematic special effects. They are pale, winking specks of brilliance, a rare intersection where fairy tales and reality meet. You can't plan for these kinds of events. They're a happy travel bonus. Then I went back in and watched the rest of the game. Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic. Read his earlier travel notes here.