Il Palio di Siena
The Palio is not a race, it’s a game.
This ancient, somewhat furious horse race around the Piazza del Campo in Siena dates back to the middle of the 1500s and is held twice a year (2nd July and 16th August) between the 17 contrade of this beautiful city.
How does it work
No official betting, no prize money at stake, 10 bareback riders and an incredible amount of passion. This is very different to any other horse race you might know and the only prize is winning civic pride and perpetual bragging rights.
There are 17 Contrade in Siena, each represented by a motif and their colours, which can be seen clearly in the streets of their neighbourhood. Almost every contrada (Drago is the exception) has an enemy and this is no joke, police vans guard the most tempestuous borders within the city: these rivalries date back generations and violent clashes can still occur. It is said that when you are born in to your contrada you belong as much to this as to your family and your patriotism is to contrada, ahead of city, region or country.
Four days before the actual race, the Horses are drawn by lottery for each of the participating contrade and the festivities begin. The Jockey is then immediately selected by the Captain of each Contrada, chosen not specifically for his brilliance on horseback, but for his skill at playing the game. Both Horse and Mount are then marched back to their respective contrada to be locked up safely with no connection to the outside world (to avoid bribery or temptation) before the race itself. It is remarkably tense and the belief, determination and faith in ones neighbourhood is palpable.
In the build up to the race over these four days a practice race is run morning and afternoon so that the jockey can get to know his horse and apply pressure to his rivals. Visitors may find it hard to believe how serious this is for Senese but if you visit the Piazza del Campo during the days of the Palio, you absorb the atmosphere as the neighbourhoods chant and taunt one another.
Vast sums of money are used by each contrada to ensure their enemy doesn’t win the race – this appears to be equally as important as winning the race oneself and these bribes are exchanged right up until the race begins.
Just three circuits around the piazza and the race is over. Too fast, so tense, amazingly atmospheric, you have to experience this once in your life!
How best to enjoy it
I don’t wish to gloat but we were extremely lucky this August as we were guests of friends in the Aquila (Eagle) contrada who also had access to the most brilliant balcony on the Piazza… it will be impossible to go back to economy class after this experience. If you are keen to do this in style then the best bet is to contact the concierge of your hotel in Siena and ask them to arrange bleacher seats on the terraces or at a balcony – but beware this comes at a very high price and isn’t always possible to arrange.
There tends to be quite a bit of waiting around whilst the jockeys are placing their final bids between the ropes and because of this, I certainly wouldn’t recommend on site viewing for families with small children, but if you are up to it the standing space in the square is an incredible way to soak up the atmosphere.
Another way is to enjoy one of the practice races, which are fun, more family friendly and then you can also attend one of the dinners in the contrade if tickets are bought in advance. For more information on all of this visit: www.ilpalio.org/palioenglish4
The Palio is currently streaming on Netflix for any of you who didn’t catch it on Channel 4 when it came out in September 2015. This documentary by Cosima Spender gives a fascinating insight in to the Senese mentality.