Il Palio di Siena

This is a post by David.

I first came to Siena, Italy years ago on a whim. I was studying in Venice with a few friends and we decided we wanted to visit Tuscany for the weekend. We picked Siena for no particular reason. We arrived to find people marching through the streets, waving strange flags, beating drums, and singing songs. The reverie went on throughout the night and into the next morning. We asked about the cause of the celebration and we were told “Il Palio was last week!” At that moment I decided that some day I’d be back to Siena to see Il Palio. And that day came on Thursday.

Parades morning, noon, and night in Siena. We were with this contrada for a couple hours. Parading is not a spectator sport.

The Palio of Siena is a famous horse race that has been run every year for centuries. The basic gist of the race is this: ten of Siena’s seventeen neighborhoods (called contrade) enter a horse and jockey into the race. The ten contrade change each year. Then for a week leading up to the race, the contrade parade through the streets, hold feasts, and generally party all the time. On the day of the race, thousands of people crowd into the tiny town square, called il campo. After much fanfare the Palio gets under way. It is a no-holds-barred race around il campo three times. The whole thing takes about a minute. Crashes are so common that a horse can still win the race without its rider. Then the crowd goes wild and the winning contrada parades through the town, ceaselessly.

Those are the facts, but it is impossible to explain how absolutely crazy the town is during this time. What follows is a account of our experience with the Palio last week. You’ll have to forgive me for being long-winded, as I’m waiting for a bus that won’t come for two hours and I feel like getting poetic.

Siena, as seen from a nearby church. The campo is the square under that tower.

We stayed in Siena for four days leading up to the Palio. There was constant partying, drums could be heard at all hours of the day and night, flags were on every lamp post and every person’s shoulders. We witnessed two of the trial races leading up to the big one. The excitement built every day. We were swept up in several parades because in the narrow streets, if a parade comes by you don’t have much of a choice but to march along as they go around the city taunting their neighbors with rude songs.

Throwing flags is a thing to do when you are parading around in medieval clothing

We couldn’t stay in Siena on the day of il Palio because all the hotels had been booked months in advance. So we traveled to Certaldo, a neighboring town in Tuscany, and then took a train back to Siena to watch il Palio.

We arrived in Siena about an hour before the race was to start. We knew we wouldn’t get a good spot but we had already seen the trial race twice so we didn’t mind. It was brutally hot in the sun and we didn’t want to stand around for hours to save a good spot.

You can’t turn a corner without running into a horse and a bunch of singing men

Unfortunately, the campo was pretty much full by this time so we couldn’t get into the square to see the race. So we went to a bar just around the corner and settled in with the locals. The excitement kept building as more people came into the streets. Finally, after several minutes spent moving the horses into position, the race started. And what a race it was! Six horses went down on the first corner and one jockey got pinned against the wall. The four remaining horses and riders went around the square at a breakneck pace. Several of the fallen horses got up and continued the race without riders, but they were shortly rounded up. In under a minute the race was over and the Valdimontone contrada claimed their first victory in twenty years.

And that’s when things got weird.

The trial race on the day before the real race

Immediately after the first horse put his foot over the finish line, several of the Sienese in our bar jumped up with a look of terror on their faces and ran at full sprint out the door. A few people from the Valdimontone contrada let out a gasp of joy (you can tell who’s who by what flag they wear on their shoulders), but really the celebration was rather restrained. We turned to the street and saw people running as fast as they could in different directions, never looking left or right, just anxiously running straight to their destination. Frankly, it was a bit scary at first. It was as if some great tragedy like an earthquake had occurred and people were hurrying to find their loved ones.

In a matter of seconds the streets had cleared and people were pressed up against the stone walls that line the cobblestone roads. Then the horses from the defeated contrade were lead down the street in silence. Behind each horse were the men from that contrada briskly, silently marching off to their neighborhood. I put my camera down because it was clear that these people were, quite frankly, very pissed off. The only noise was the clop-clop of the horses’ hooves and the muffled sobbing of grown men crying.

At this point we were pretty uncomfortable and decided to go into the campo. The scene there could not be more different.

The Valdimontone contrada was parading around the square in full swing. They were singing songs, waving flags, and beating drums. Yes, there was plenty of crying but this time it was tears of joy. People were on their knees sobbing, others were red-faced, kissing and hugging. The campo was packed and energy was at an all-time high. Eventually this poured out of the campo and the streets were once again overtaken by jubilation.

Celebration in il campo

We took all this in for a half hour as we tried to make our way through the throngs and outside of Siena’s historic center. We walked through several contrade on our way to the train station and at one point we stopped to watch a replay of the race on a nearby television. As the six horses made their fateful miss-step and collapsed on the corner, a man from the porcupine contrada put his hand on my shoulder to offer conciliation. The italians are very emotional people.

We spent the train ride home trying to dissect what in the world had happened in our few days in Siena.

Here’s a video of the race that we saw:

Here is a really good video about a previous year’s Palio. Skip to 9:00 to see the race and the craziness after it:

Note: if you can’t see these videos in your email, please visit the blog.

Afterward:

In many corners of the world, old traditions are dying off and (hopefully) making room for new ones. In Thailand and Cambodia, you can take day trips to see “traditional hill tribes living a traditional life”, but really they change out of their robes and into jeans when the tourists leave in the afternoon. In Portugal you can go to a fado concert put on for tourists because, honestly, not many Portuguese care about fado music anymore.

That is not the case with the Palio di Siena. Tourists are tolerated, but it is telling that at times the only camera I could see was mine. I tried to keep it tucked away as much as I could.

The tradition dates back over five hundred years and it is still going strong. Young men lead the singing and parading. They can be seen practicing their flag-throwing in the alleys while their little brothers watch on, looking forward to the day that they can lead the parades.

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