Palio di Siena – 500 years in a Horserace
The Palio di Siena is an occasion to be immersed in Tuscan colors, sensations and culture. The seventeen Contrada, or local cities within the city, have celebrated commonality and individuality since 1644 through this unique horserace in the main square. Each Contrada proudly displays their standards, the traditional banner with the coat of arms, as they enter the square pulsating with thousands of people.
Our hosts, during this four-day long festival, own the bar on the ground floor of the building and have allowed us to view the events from their balcony, strategically positioned above the square. The parade of honor strolls into the square on the final day of the festivities before the final run of the horses. Flag teams enter in traditional dress, brilliant colors flash like fireworks exploding synchronized by the drummer’s beat. The concave square has been covered with dirt and sawdust creating a soft surface for the impressive horses and their jockeys.
The Palio is not really a race, instead it is a chase, culminating four days of trials and qualifications and blessing of the horses. One by one the names of the Contrada are selected randomly and the jockey moves his horse to the ropes indicating the starting line. The last Contrada remaining starts the chase at its discretion. Appearing at a running start the horse breaks past the other horses at the line and the chase is on. Each jockey has been presented a whip as he moved to the line. The whip may be used to incite the horse or to bother the other riders, which is more often the case.
Hundreds of years of local competition among the Contrada are expressed in this race. This is not a day at the Kentucky Derby, it is a no holds barred race to gain bragging rights for the next year. My first thoughts were to the running of the bulls in Spain but with horses. A brutal, but sensational, rush of adrenalin that even the most passive of spectators is taken to frenzy as one or more riders take flight as they are catapulted from their steed.
Three trips around the square as the city erupts in cheers. Excitement permeates the air as the horses close on the thousand meter finish line. Yes, the horses because it is the horse that wins the chase, not the jockey. The first horse to pass the finish line, with our without its rider, wins the banner for its Contrada. Banner won, the festivities begin as the dominating Contrada places its standard in the Church. Celebration continues as the Contrada parade around the city for the rest of the evening.
The Palio di Siena occurs twice a year, from June 29-July 2 and August 13-August 16, representing the catholic holy days of the Virgin. Each day is filled with traditional songs of each Contrada, folkloristic costumes, gastronomic specialties and qualifications for the final chase. While it is almost impossible to find lodging without advance preparation Borgo Monastero is only a few minutes away.
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