What is Il Palio (The Palio)? Held annually on 2 July and 16 August to honor the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven, the first official race happened in 1656 with the Siena ‘contrade’, or districts, vying aggressively for their horse to win.
There are now 17 districts in Siena, each with its own headquarters, mascot, banners and colors. Each have a different animal representing them – including a giraffe, dolphin, owl, hedgehog, unicorn and snail. Rivalry between each contrada is extremely fierce, bubbling among the Sienese until the big race day.
After wandering around Florence, I catch a bus on a scorching hot August morning, for my 1.5 hour trip to Siena. I am so glad that I had asked how to get there in Florence, as back home the travel agent had said to book a train to Siena – but the actual town center is *nowhere* near the train station. If I had listened, I would have been stranded, with not a taxi in sight (it was a public holiday), walking for a couple of hours in the blistering heat, cursing the travel agent the whole way.
I check in to Hotel La Toscana, which is pretty much the only accommodation I found a month before. Oh my goodness, did they just give the star rating to the lobby, or did the hotel pay for the extra stars? The sign out the front says that it is three stars but I’ve stayed in two star or one star hotels in Italy that are better than this by leaps and bounds. Being the middle of summer, there is no air conditioning (only a dingy fan in the corner provides any coolness), the shower has seen better days, there’s the smell of mothballs in the cupboard and there are suspicious yellow stains on the walls.
Clutching my Siena map which I bought for the not-so-cheap price of 5.50 euros, it’s actually useful although after a day the town is pretty straightforward to navigate around. There are churches “everywhere” in the city, although wearing a singlet and shorts I wasn’t comfortable just walking into a place of worship with my legs and arms bare.
The evening before Il Palio, each contrade are setting up long tables in their respective districts for dinner that evening, with flags hanging off buildings that splash the town’s roofs with even more colors. I meet three randoms from Sardinia who are there for the festival, however unfortunately their English is worse than my Italian. I make the mistake of thinking that ‘caldo’ means cold when it means hot – they probably thought that I was strange, thinking that it was a cool day while sweat poured out of every pore of my body!
Il Campo, nicknamed the “bathroom sink” (thanks to its shape) is where the main event takes place. The best place to watch the next day is on the incline of the “sink”, towards the fringes. You can pay a fortune otherwise to get a bench seat on the perimeters of the arena – if you are prepared to fork out 200-300 euro for the pleasure. For me to get the best view, I arrived at 1.30pm to score my vantage point. An hour later a truck drives along the ring, which is filled with water. The truck sprays the ground (and mercifully us) to soften the ground pre-race.
The procession finally begins at 5pm, which showcases all 17 horses from each contrada. Each has a drummer first, two boys with their contrada’s flags who do a spectacular twirling and flag waving display, a man in full armor and then the jockeys and their horses. I am impressed by the colors of the costumes and the fact that they are wearing heavy medieval kit in the heat, while I sweat just standing in the sun.
The detail is amazing – each costume is completely different, including the hairstyles on the contrada (some have curly, some straight bobs, some with a fringe etc). There is also a man in the Duomo tower who rings the bell by hand nonstop throughout the whole procession, which goes on for about two hours. I feel like I’ve been transported to another century.
By 7pm Il Campo is completely packed and despite this, the entire crowd goes deathly silent as the order of how the 10 competing horses (there are 10 for the two annual races, which means that some contrada compete twice) will line up once the race starts. It’s then that the fierce rivalry becomes apparent, with die-hard fans screaming profanities at the other horses. I see a girl in the stands scream until she’s practically hysterical, her face tomato red and looking like she’ll burst into tears.
Finally, after three false starts (apparently this can go on for hours as it’s virtually impossible to keep the horses still), the race kicks off an hour and a half later. As the horses whizz by everyone goes ballistic – but it’s over in less than a minute. Once it is, everyone jumps the fence and rushes onto the track, screeching and cheering. Partying continues throughout the night and early morning, as people from the winning contrada march the streets, beating drums, blowing whistles, waving banners and (not sure why), sucking on baby dummies.
While it’s absolutely boiling during the day, by nightfall the weather is surprisingly pleasant – there’s a nice breeze and kids are running around with discuses, launching them into the sky. People are dressed to the nines and there’s a great party vibe. Feeling pretty under-dressed, I can’t help but laugh at three Italian guys and their attempts to pick up a couple of English girls with little success, with lines like they speak “poco poco Inglese”.
In Siena be sure to check out the Duomo, which is spectacular with numerous paintings, frescoes and sculptures inside. If you have time, climb to the top – only one person can fit round the staircase (it’s an interesting case of bump and grind time when you confront someone walking in the opposite direction), but the views from the top of Siena’s famed red roofs once you scale the 131 stairs are delightful.
The Museo dell Opera Metropolitana is just as interesting, with the original apostles from the Duomo lined up towards the altar, as well as various frescoes and paintings from Sienese artists. Meanwhile, Piazza San Domenico has a great view of the other buildings and their red bricks just outside the city center.
Siena is also home to the world’s oldest bank (since 1472) and the delicious panforte. What’s not to love?