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Palio di Siena

Not Your Ordinary Horse Race

By Nick Herron

July 2nd and August 16th may be just dates on a calendar, but for the proud people who call Siena home, they are the eagerly anticipated moment of truth that is the Palio. This ancient horse race (in honor of the Virgin Mary) takes place twice during the summer – once on the Feast of the Visitation and again, the day after the Feast of the Assumption.

On these days, the sleepy Tuscan city of 55,000 erupts with an incredible fervor transforming the city’s main plaza into a veritable cauldron of heated competition and energy. The Palio di Siena is a raucous cultural circus like no other in Europe – or the world for that matter!

And with a handful of Siena hostels accepting bookings in advance, it’s easy to find and stay at a cheap place while enjoying this world class event. What’s more, getting to the Palio could hardly be easier: it’s just a quick half hour train ride from Florence or Pisa, and you’re there.

Off to the Races

The event itself takes place in the Piazza del Campo, where colourful banners bearing medieval coats of arms hang from surrounding palazzo. Though the race scarcely lasts a minute and a half, amid the pandemonium and wild cries of “andiamo!” and “forza!”, it’s one of the most dramatic spectacles imaginable.

All eyes focus in on ten mounted horses fidgeting impatiently behind a thin rope; and with the tension having become almost unbearable, the race cracks to a start when the rope is pulled and the horses (representing different contrade of the city) bolt with reckless abandon around the piazza.

A City Divided

The traditions still evident in the Palio underpin much of the city’s past. Historically, Siena itself is made up 17 districts called contrade that can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when the city was still a formidable regional powerbase.

Every contrada has its own symbol or mascot to bear, and from the 60 that once existed, now only 17 survive: the Tortoise, the Wave, the She-Wolf, the Goose, the Shell, the Porcupine, the Dragon, the Owl, the Snail, the Panther, the Eagle, the Caterpillar, the Unicorn, the Ram, the Giraffe, the Forest, and the Tower.

Strictly divided by tradition and historical competition, some Sienese even consider marrying outside of their contrada to be sacrilegious, and a few fanatics even sport tattoos showing the contrada to which they belong!

Find a Feast

During the three days that precede the final showdown in the Piazza del Campo, preparations are made with equal helpings of fanfare and pomp as the race itself. In the adjacent streets each night, the competing contrade begin the festivities by piecing together 50-foot tables to “practice” their celebration feast should their contrada be the one to take home the race’s prize – a silk banner to be housed in the contrada’s respective Palio museum.

If you’re looking for a good place to eat, these days in the run up to the Palio will show you the way. Your best bet is to wander into a contrada and join the hordes of jubilant locals dishing out behemoth bowls of fresh pasta, vegetables and meat.

The Moment of Truth

On the day of the Palio, a traditional parade is held in the campo where flag bearers of competing contrade lead processions of drummers and trumpeters around the track that has been laid with wet dirt. As the horses and their riders are led into the piazza (having been blessed for victory by a priest from their local contrada) spectators elbow their way to get the best view.

When the race has started, try to keep your eyes on the horses and jockeys. Official rules dictate that even if a jockey falls, a horse can still win the race if it crosses the finish line!

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