Not Your Ordinary Horse Race
By Nick Herron
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
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
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!