Siena, Italy’s Palio is the Kentucky Derby on steroids

Siena, Italy’s Palio is the Kentucky Derby on steroids

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SIENA, Italy, June 28, 2014 – Be it horses or horsepower, May is a month for racing…except in Italy. .Italians pay no attention because when it comes to racing, nothing matches the Palio of Siena.

As they dust off funky hats and mix batches of mint juleps in Louisville for the Derby; refrigerate milk in Indianapolis at the 500; ice down Coca Cola for Charlotte’s 600-mile stock car race, and chill champagne at Monte Carlo’s Grand Prix, in Siena they are preparing for two 90-second horse races filled with months of ceremony and celebration.

Each year, on July 2 and August 16, ten horses and bareback riders dressed in the representative colors of their districts, or contrada, circle the Piazza del Campo three times for the honor of winning the Palio. “Honor” is hardly appropriate, however, for Il Palio, as it is known to the locals is all about frenzy and war on horseback. The prize for winning is called the pallium, which is nothing more than a hand-painted silk banner, but it carries great significance for the victorious district.

Piazz del Campo,Siena  (Photo: Siena Tourism)
Piazza del Campo,Siena (Photo: Siena Tourism)

Known around the globe for its beauty and architecture, Siena’s shell-shaped Piazza del Campo is one of the great spaces of Europe. From the labyrinth of Siena’s ancient claustrophobic streets, no less than eleven gateways radiate toward the piazza that suddenly opens into a glorious medieval arena.

Race day, Piazza del Campo  (Photo: Siena Tourism)
Race day, Piazza del Campo (Photo: Siena Tourism)

Following the initial mouth-dropping awe of the setting, the first thing visitors notice is that Piazza del Campo is anything but flat. The square slopes downward toward a row of administrative buildings known as Palazzo Pubblico, which, in turn, feed to the dangerous San Martino bend of the track. So treacherous is San Martino to navigate that during the races mattresses are placed against the walls to protect jockeys from injury if they fall. It’s not uncommon to see riderless horses at the finish line.

Just before race day, operators lay a thick layer of dirt around the Campo to form the track. Thousands of spectators gather around the perimeter, peering from windows, balconies, loggias and rooftops.

Space in the center of the track is equally congested but far less desirable because the throngs of humanity become sequestered for several hours until the race has concluded.

Around a turn  (Photo: Siena Tourism)
Around a turn (Photo: Siena Tourism)

The Palio is not a manufactured tourist event. Rather its roots lie deeply ingrained within the history of the city. The Sienese (Contrade) are passionate about their races and, though they embrace anyone and everyone who wishes to participate, the Palio is a major part of the city’s identity.

Once divided into 59 contrada, today only 17 remain. The neighborhoods evolved during the Middle Ages as a means of defending themselves from their enemies in Florence and other surrounding city-states. As a result, each community has its own identity with a coat of arms, emblems, colors, patron saints and festivals. All of which adds to the rivalries and competitive fervor when Palio season rolls around.

Chaos on horseback  (Photo: Siena Tourism)
Chaos on horseback (Photo: Siena Tourism)

For many decades Siena, and other cities, held horse races and competed in other games as part of their religious and ceremonial events. Today, only the Palio survives as a celebration of giving thanks to the Madonna.

Dangerous curve  (Photo: Siena Tourism)
Dangerous curve (Photo: Siena Tourism)

The July 2 Palio honors Madonna dell’Assunta who protected Siena against Florence in the year 1260. The second race on August 16 is called Madonna di Provenzano resulting from a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near houses once belonging to Provenzano Salvani.

For travelers, opportunities abound to experience the spirit of the Palio without seeing the races themselves. Each event features four days of parades, pageantry and ceremony leading up to the actual running of the race.

Selection day brings great excitement to Piazza del Campo when a traditional ritual announces the chosen ten contrade to compete in the race. Thousands gather as the banners of the selected individual districts are slowly unfurled from the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico. Tension mounts dramatically as each new banner displays, while officials agonizingly taunt the crowd by delaying the tenth, and final, pennant.

Each district has its own traditions and events as well. In the evening, rows of 50-foot tables filled with pasta, fruit, vegetables and other local cuisine. Visitors are openly welcomed and provided with endless details about why each particular district is the best of the lot.

Celebration and pageantry  (Photo: Taylor)
Celebration and pageantry (Photo: Taylor)

During the day parades of flag-waving minstrels dressed in medieval clothing make their way through the winding streets of the city.

Not to missed are the muse della contrada, or district museums. Each neighborhood has one that displays memorabilia, drawings, paintings, photographs, uniforms and costumes from previous Palio events.

When race time finally arrives, spectators pack themselves along both sides of the track anxiously waiting for the starting rope to drop and the three lap clockwise sprint to glory to begin.

A brief 90 seconds later a riotous cacophony of colorful, enthusiastic celebration erupts in the square. Though the Palio has concluded, preparations are already underway to see who will earn bragging rights in the next demolition derby on horseback known as The Palio.

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About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe. He is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

His goal is to visit 100 countries or more during his lifetime.

Read more of Travels with Peabod and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

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