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Horses & Donkeys

Asti and Alba, bitter rivals through much of the Middle Ages, each celebrate the autumn harvest with equine celebrations that are horses of a very different color.

The Palio (tel. 0141-399-482), Asti's annual horse race, is run the third Sunday of September. Like the similar but more famous horse race that the Tuscan city of Siena mounts, Asti's Palio begins with a medieval pageant through the town and ends with a wild bareback ride around the Campo del Palio. The race coincides with Asti's other great revel, the Douja d'Or (www.doujador.it), a weeklong fair-cum-bacchanal celebrating the grape.

On the first Sunday of October, Alba pulls a spoof on Asti with the Palio degli Asini (Race of the Asses; tel. 0173-362-806). The event, which coincides with Alba's annual truffle fair, is not as speedy as Asti's slicker horseback Palio, but it's a lot more fun. Good-natured as the event is, though, it is rooted in some of the darkest days of Alba's history. In the 13th century, Asti, then one of the most powerful republics of northern Italy, besieged Alba and burned the surrounding vineyards. Then, to add insult to injury, the victors held their palio in Alba, just to put the humbled citizenry further in its place. Alba then staged a palio with asses, a not-so-subtle hint of what they thought of their victors and their pompous pageantry.

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