During my first visit to Italy, I was in Siena for the entire month of August.
It is the perfect opportunity to be caught up in the passion of the Sienese people and experience a unique culture: The Palio.
The Palio is the most important event in Siena, which takes place on 2 July and 16 August every year where the “contrade” challenge each other in a horse race in the Piazza del Campo. Out of the 17 Contrade which exist today, ten of them participate in the Palio race.
Each person who belongs to a Contrada, or areas in which the city is divided, participate vividly in the life of the Contrada and the organization of the Palio.
Each Contrada has its own unique emblem and colors and represents an area of the city. As one walks through the streets of Siena it is easy to know in which Contrada you currently are by observing the flags and emblems displayed along the street.
While the race itself lasts just 90 seconds, festivities go on for days. In the days leading to the Palio, one can witness the vigor and zeal of the locals. Every single contrada that will be racing in the Palio holds open air dinners along the streets of their contrada. As my residence was in the Contrada dell’Onda, I had an opportunity to be a part of the dinner along with the local citizens.
On the day of the Palio race the city is in full turmoil and the entire day is dedicated to the event.
In the morning, there are certain religious ceremonies organized in the chapel next to Palazzo Comunale for the horse jockeys. Shortly after the mass the last trial takes place in Piazza del Campo.
Me and my friend, we could witness the large parades organized by each Contrada in their historical costume on the streets of Siena. With over 600 participants, the parade winds through the city and arrives finally at the Piazza del Campo. Therefore, we proceeded towards the Piazza del Campo to grab a nice place in order to get a good viewing position. The entire city of Siena packs into Il Campo.
Bleacher and balcony seats are expensive, but it is free to join the masses in the square. Those who are well connected get to watch from the comfort of an apartment window. It is important to note that there are no toilet facilities in this central section, though there are soft-drink sellers and first-aid posts. We carried plenty of water, and we had hats and sun block.
Shortly thereafter, the explosion of a firecracker signaled the entrance of the horses into the piazza. Finally, it was time. A cart pulled by oxen carried the Palio banner into the arena and the crowd went wild. As the starting places were announced, 10 snorting horses and their nervous riders lined up to await the start.
Meanwhile, we just chose a contrada to root for- it simply makes the experience more enthralling. As I mentioned earlier, I pitched on the Contrada dell’Onda (Wave) while my friend chose Contrada del Drago (Dragon). We also bought the scarves from the souvenir shops.
The race! Once the rope drops, there’s one basic rule: There are no rules. The jockeys race bareback like crazy while spectators go berserk.
The ecstatic mob raved and wept our loud for their Contrada:
“Onda! Vai! Vai!”
In Siena, life stops for these frantic three laps. We all held our breath and then the winner: ONDA! The crowd zipped out in the streets with the flags of the winning Contrada, weeping with joy. The winning Contrada received the Drappellone (banner) or palio as the victorious Contrada members headed towards the Duomo for the “Te Deum” or prayer of thanks. They carried their new trophy and hoisted their jockey high.
Seeing the euphoria of the winning contrada members reminded me that it is impossible for a tourist to understand what this ritual race means to the people of Siena.
As my friend, Clara explained, “For the Sienese, you’re born…there’s the Palio…and then you can die.”
It’s remarkable to live this unique atmosphere that only the Palio of Siena offers!