The short answer is YES. The true answer is NO.
I traveled to Siena Italy last summer and witnessed both Palio. Known as il Palio.
When I first heard about the historic horse race in Siena, I could not believe my ears. Was it truly only a 90 second, three lap race? It seemed maybe I was missing something, and I began my quest to understand what this race was or was NOT.
Early on I knew it was NOT your typical pick your trifecta Saratoga Travers Day Race. No siree, get out of your American mind set. Take a look around and remember:
- You are in Italy
- You’re in Tuscany
- You’re standing in Siena, a medieval city in which the first inhabitants were Etruscan, dating back to 900-400 BC.
The race is called The Palio and actually takes place twice every year in Siena on two dates:
JULY 2nd and AUGUST 16th.
Don’t make the mistake like I did and say hey wait those dates aren’t weekend dates. I thought how could something so famous and important take place on a Tuesday as it did on July 2, 2013? A local quickly reminded me that this race has been taking place (as we know it today) since around 1856. So basically with a few exceptions on these same two days for over 300 years. I was told I was missing the point. It is the day that is important not the day of the week. These two days are considered holidays, and with the exception of the hardworking shop workers, restaurant, and other tourist based employees, everyone else will have these two important days off.
*An important note is that there are actually 4 days of preparation for the actual race day, (with trials etc.) and if planning to attend and witness this truly spectacular event I recommend adding as much time to the beginning of your trip as you can in order to grasp the excitement and emotional build up that occurs within the walls of Siena during this time. See photo above; note the jockeys are not in their colored costumes for this trial.
This race is attended by thousands and held in the famous Piazza del Campo which is transformed into a makeshift racetrack, a few days preceding the race. Yes I witnessed truck- loads of a special type of clay based soil being brought in by the truckloads, spread around and tamped down covering the Piazza bricks. Wooden barriers are erected in the center to protect the thousands of spectators, padded crash pads on the perimeters of the track to protect the perhaps not so lucky jockeys and unfortunate horses and even wooden bleacher seating called ‘palchi’s set up for this event.
There are so many nuances to the race, and the more I spoke to the locals the more intrigued I was to learn more.
First I had to learn about the Contradas. There are 17 contradas, which are like small communities within Siena, sometimes referred to as wards. Note that for each race only 10 of the 17 contradas will compete. Each contrade is represented by it’s own symbol, many are animals such as Pantera (panther), Drago (dragon), or things of nature like the Nicchio, (shell) or Onda, (wave) The contradas are true delineated geographical regions, all each have their own colors which are represented in their flags and costumes. There are both strategic alliances and fierce rivalries between the contrade. One can not join a contrada but rather is born into it.
Then slowly I was told of more nuances such for example, the jockeys ride bareback, and there is only one winner, the horse that crosses the finish line first with or without a jockey on his back! Wait a minute; do you mean that they sometimes fall off? YES. In most races it seems to happen and in both that I witnessed last summer that was indeed the case! The horse that comes in second is considered the loser. There was so much to try to understand. I decided to purchased a book, considered by some to be one of the best-written books about the Palio. It is titled La Terra in Piazza by Alan Dundes and Alessandro Falassi.
To put the Palio into a quick perspective I would like to quote a partial paragraph from the book. The quote below from La Terra in Piazza.
“In order to understand the Palio one would need not seconds or minutes or hours, days, weeks, months, and even years. In fact, it is doubtful whether any one individual could ever articulate all the details underlying the palio, no matter how long and assiduously he studied it. For the palio is endlessly rich in symbol, metaphor, and patterns of interaction.”
Phew – now I could be easy on myself! All kidding aside, with the help of this book, and my own conversations with the locals on various trips to Siena, I was able to come to a level of understanding and to be present with this event and the locals. I have the utmost regard for what this event represents to them. I am sure there may be some tourists who think the parades through the walled streets of Siena, with the contrade members in full costumes beating drums are for, their benefit. That could not be farther from the truth. These events are the soul and fiber of their members, and something we would be fortunate to witness with honor and respect.
The contradas are competing for a silk banner. For the June race the Palio is created to honor the Blessed Virgin Mary. The banner is the ultimate prize and it too is also called a ‘Palio’. This is a sacred piece of silk cloth and local artists compete with their designs to be chosen to create the coveted Palio. Last year was unique in that the Palio was double sided, and two artists rather then just one were chosen to have their work, one on each side of the highly coveted Palio. I was honored to have met one of the artists, Cecilia Rigaccii. She was introduced to me through a friend. A close up of her design and all the delicate detail can be seen here.
If you want to experience this wonderful Sienese event this summer contact me for more information. My next blog post will include more info and photos of the August 2013 race, where I was able to obtain a special ‘window viewing’ of the Palio for my clients. They were very pleased to have such a breathtaking view and all the comforts of an apartment for the duration of the race and proceeding parade.
Hotel rooms book quickly as you can imagine, even if you are still undecided, please contact me ASAP. Dlarsen5@icloud.com or call 512 569 3560.