il Palio di Siena

What I write in this blog and the pictures I post will not do justice to what I witnessed August 16th in Siena.

Il Palio di Siena is a tradition that dates back to the 12th Century.  In the Piazza del Campo in Siena, a large 400m long dirt race track traces a ring inside the piazza, with barricades lining either side of the track.  At 19h00, for no more than two minutes, ten jockeys, from ten regions in Siena, on ten horses, barebacked, will race around the ring three times for a shot at the title, the Palio.

When I found out I’d be in Tuscany during the Palio, I had been looking forward to it like Christmas.  I expected the Palio to be one thing.  Not only were my expectations totally off the mark, but I’m still in shock and in awe of what I witnessed that day.

Passing under the bleachers to get into la Piazza del Campo around 13h00.  The donut hole is still empty.  Eager spectators have already staked their spot out.

Il Duomo.  Crazy how many people there are, considering this isn’t where the race will take place.  Little did we know, this is where they have the parade of each of the contrades.

Each contrade (region/team) has a drummer who leads the flag throwers and other costumed folk into the piazza.  In front of il Duomo, each contrade takes their turn to show off their flag and their flag throwers’ skills.  Everyone is in costume.

Two flags being tossed.  The more original and the more coordinated the toss, the better!

While waiting for Rocco to arrive, we were waiting on a deserted street corner.  Out of nowhere, the mounted police showed up.  Not impressive now, but wait ’til you hear what they did later…

Tiny details, like stars shaved on the horses’ butts, aren’t spared.  Photo: Dana.

Me, in the donut hole of the Piazza.  If you want a spot on the bleachers or on someone’s porch, you have to pay a hefty price.  The middle of the Piazza, inside the ring, is free, but it’s first-come-first-serve.

Picnic time! We staked our place out at 16h30.  We didn’t have to stand until 18h30, when it really started to get packed.  From left: Dana and Warren from Austin, TX and Rocco.

Inside the Ring.  There are about 30 000 people that can fit in the ring. Photo: Rocco.

The beginning of the procession.  The mounted police trotted around the piazza while everyone waved and cheered.  And then out of nowhere, the leader pulls out his sword and charges, full speed ahead. When he passed our area, you could see his face, clear as day.  He looked like he was charging the enemy who was burning his house down with his wife and kids inside.  And they went fast! Because they were on saddles, they probably went faster than the jockeys in the race.  This picture was taken right before they took off.

The blessing of the horses. Each contrade takes its turn to march around the race track.  It starts at 17h00 and goes on for two hours.  At the end, the mayor is seated on a thrown, the trumpeters take their place on the moving platform.  They are pulled by four ox around the ring.  We had no idea, but there are designated areas for each contrade in the donut hole.  When the mayor passes each section, everyone waved their flags.  It was like a silk rainbow.

Beautiful day!

The last of the flag throwers.  Before, each team went out individually with a drummer and various other ornaments.  Now, it’s just one flag thrower from each team.  At the very end, they throw their flags and make a grand finale catch and pose.  Unfortunately, one of the flags landed in the crowd and badly injured one of the spectators.  She was pulled out from the crowd, which had now gone silent, and put on a sketcher.  She was taken away in the ambulance.  Photo: Rocco.

Very shortly after the ambulance pulled out of the piazza, the faniti (jockeys) entered the ring. Everyone cheered.  There were 17 contrades (teams/regions) that entered the ring, but only ten will race.  They choose the ten teams by pulling names from a hat.  Once the 17 horses entered into the starting area, the entire piazza fell silent: they were about to draw the first name.

The starting. The ten chosen horses must line up at the starting line.  Once most of the horses are somewhat at the starting line, ready, the rope is dropped and the race begins.   Sounds simple, right?  Except one thing: there are no rules. But while it may appear disorganized, there is strategy involved. There is one favourite contrade who waits calmly, undisturbed, far back from the starting line.  One of the favourite’s allies will provoke the rival teams to get all of the starting line confused and disorganized.  Hopefully, right before the rope is dropped the whole front line is messed up so the favourite from the back can get a clear start.  This palio only had about six or seven false starts, which meant the race was backed up by only twenty minutes.  Usually, it’s backed up by at least an hour.

And they’re off! They only go around the piazza three times, but MY GOD WHAT A THRILL.  While the mounted police went around earlier, to everyone’s surprise, the race itself was intense.  One jockey even fell off his horse, but his horse kept going.  According to the rules, if the horse, sans jockey, wins the race, it counts as a valid win.

Around the corner.  I told you they went fast!

Once the winning contrade crossed the finish line, the shit really hit the fan. People were cheering because they won.  People were crying because they lost.  People were calling fouls on other teams.  From all corners of the piazza, spectators starting spilling onto the race tracks, from inside the ring and from the outside.  Horses were running around without jockeys and without anyone to guide them.  Police officers weren’t around to move the crowds.  Everyone was pushing, pulling, almost falling.  We weren’t sure if there was a celebration going on or a riot.  It was total mayhem.

We didn’t stay any longer than a minute after the race was over.  When we saw that chaos had taken over from all corners of the Piazza, we decided to not waste another minute and get the f*** out.

We managed to cross the race track, dodge a horse or two, and cling onto each other and some other tourists who also wanted to get the hell out of there.  By some miracle, we didn’t lose anyone.

“What the f*** just happened?!”

None of us were quite sure.  None of us were expecting that to happen.

Turns out: the Palio is a HUGE DEAL in Siena. This isn’t for the amusement of tourists.  A lot of money is put on the table.  Rivalries go back centuries.  Pride and respect are what are at stake.  I now understand why Shakespeare based Romeo & Juliet in Italy of all places…

In the end, it was the turtle who brought home the victory.  This isn’t a reference to La Fontaine’s the Tortous and the Hare. The turtle is the symbol animal for the winning team.  I think the female wolf, la louvra, was the favourite at the start.

The Palio is an experience like nothing I have ever experienced in my life.  There are moments of awe, quickly followed by moments of extreme intensity.  From a tourist standpoint, I don’t think I’ll ever understand how important this is to the Sienese people.  It’s in the blood and it’s in the heart.

If you’re in Tuscany around July 2nd or August 16th, make the effort to see the Palio.  You won’t regret it.  It is absolutely mind-blowing.

🙂 Julie


2 thoughts on “il Palio di Siena

  1. WOW! Le Globe and Mail a une photo dans le journal d’aujourd’hui d’un cheval blanc avec jockey. Mais ton blog donne une toute autre impression, beaucoup plus excitante. Ah! L’Italie!

  2. I was looking for some foto on palio and happened to see your beautiful fotos and comments that give an idea of what and why is going on there. I am italian and I find interesting your way to enjoy and survive Italy’s beauties and contradictions.
    I’m preapering a website for americans to invite them to visit Italy and would like to let them to read and know more about a skilled american traveller experiences.
    It would be of great help if I could report on my site some of your italian trips publications.
    Please let me know.

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