How does one describe Siena’s Il Palio? This horse race is part Kentucky Derby, part Shakespearean drama with a pinch of Mardi Gras thrown in for good measure. The 90 second event is breath taking to watch. Jockeys ride bareback three times around a dirt track in Siena’s Piazza Del Campo, the first horse that crosses the finish line is declared the winner, with or without a rider. The race has ancient roots, starting sometime in the 13th century in the piazza. The foundation of the race is built on the fierce competition between the 17 different contradas or neighborhoods in Siena. Each Sienese contrade has it’s own church, social structure, patron saint and flag. Over the years the race has evolved from riding buffalos to donkeys to horses. It is now held twice a year, July 2 and August 16, former Palio is a bit older and therefore the bigger deal of the two.
photo by Janus Kinase
But it’s not just a horse race, the behind the scenes dealings are almost more fascinating than the race itself. Of the 17 contrade, 7 get an automatic entry and the remaining 10 draws for the last three spots. Just days before the big race the Palio committee chooses the 10 horses and then randomly assigns them to each racing contrade. Alliances are formed; there are ‘donations’ made, heavy negoations and bribery become common at this point. Those with a good horse, try to buy off those that are a possible threat and win. If you have a not so good horse you are happy to take the money so that one of your closest contrada can beat your archrival. If you win, it’s much more than a horse race it’s utter euphoria. If you come in second, you are the official loser of the race, tenth is much better than second. Race day finally arrives, as do 50,000 spectators to the beautiful Tuscan town. The hours before the race are consumed by parades and pageantry throughout the streets of Siena. As the afternoon wears on, the piazza swells with a mostly Sienese crowd, the anticipation and anxiety are palpable. The horses finally arrive to the start and there seems to be even more negotiating among the racers at the start as there are several false starts, these bring groans, even from a Palio savvy crowd. Without any real warning the race in on! The horses run a dizzying, breakneck speed, both riders and horses fall and it seems almost impossible to predict a winner. The crowd is absolutely ecstatic and when the winning horse crosses the finish line, pandemonium ensues. People rush from the square into the track, grown men weep with tears of joy and, the jockey is carried off the horse into the jubilant crowd and the horse is rushed to church for one last blessing. How to get there: you can take with the bus or the train to Siena from most surrounding Tuscan towns. Race starts at around 7:30pm, it’s best to arrive several hours before to stake your claim in the piazza as well as see some of the parades. Driving proved to be fairly easy, we found a spot right away. Hotels in Siena Hotel Minerva Average Price: €54 Average Rating: 8 Montaperti Hotel Average Price: €45 Average Rating: 8.6 Hotel Villa Montarioso Average Price: €45 Average Rating: 8.8