The Palio Delle Contrade

No other festival in Italy is as colorful, as intense, or as spectacular as Siena's Palio. Twice a year, Siena packs the Piazza del Campo with dirt and runs a no-holds-barred bareback horse race around it, the highlight of a week of trial runs, feasts, parades, and solemn ceremonies. The tradition, in one form or another, goes back to at least 1310. The Palio is a deadly serious competition, and while Siena doesn't mind if visitors show up, the Palio is for the Sienese.

To understand the Palio -- really, to understand Siena -- you must know something of the contrada system. In the 14th century there were about 42 contrade, neighborhood wards that helped provide militia support for Siena's defense. The number of wards was successively reduced until the current 17 contrade were fixed in 1675. Each ward is named after an animal or object -- Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Bruco (Worm), Onda (Wave), and so on -- and each has its own headquarters, social club, museum, and church.

You are born into the contrada of your parents, are baptized in your contrada's open-air font, learn your contrada's allies and enemies at an early age, go to church in your contrada's oratory, almost invariably marry within your contrada, spend your free time hanging out in the contrada social club, and help elect or serve on your contrada's governing body. Even your funeral is sponsored by the contrada, which mourns your passing as family. It's like a benevolent form of Hollywood's mythical Mafia -- but no contrada tolerates unlawfulness, and as a result Siena has a shockingly low crime rate.

Ten contrade are chosen each year to ride in the July 2 Palio di Provenzano (established in 1659) -- the seven that didn't ride the previous July 2 plus three chosen by lot. A similar process decides the runners for the even bigger Palio dell'Assunta, in honor of the Assumption of the Virgin, on August 16 (which dates from 1310), meaning it's technically possible for your contrada to compete in neither race in a year. The horse you're given and the order you're lined up on the track are also chosen by separate lots. Jockeys are hired guns, and usually imported -- traditionally a Maremma horseman, but many come from Sardegna or Sicily -- and you'll never know how well he'll ride, whether the bribe one of your rival contrade may slip him will outweigh the wages you paid, or if he'll even make it to the race without being ambushed. If your jockey does turn on you, you'd better hope he's thrown quickly. The Palio, you see, is a true horse race -- the horse is the one that wins, whether there's a rider still on it or not (both editions in 1989 were won by riderless steeds). The jockey's main job is to hang onto the horse's bare back and thrash the other horses and their riders with the stiff ox-hide whip he's given for the purpose. The Palio may at this point seem pretty lawless, but there actually is one rule: No jockey can grab another horse's reins.

At the two 90-degree turns of the Campo, almost every year a rider or two goes flying out of the racetrack to land among the stands or slams up against the mattresses prudently padding the palazzi walls. Sienese lore, however, maintains that no one has ever died in the running of a Palio. What is the prize for all this? A palio, a banner painted with the image of the Virgin Mary, in whose name the race is run. That, and the honor of your contrada.

The Palios really start on June 29 and August 13, when the lots are drawn to select the 10 racers and the trial races begin. Over the next 2 days, morning and afternoon trial runs are held, and on the evening before each Palio, the contrade hold an all-night feast and party lasting more or less until the 7:45am Jockey's Mass in the Cappella della Piazza on the Campo. There's a final heat at 9am, then everybody dissolves to his or her separate contrada for last-minute preparations. The highlight is the 3pm (3:30pm in July) Blessing of the Horse in each contrada's church -- a little manure dropping at the altar is a sign of good luck -- at which the priest ends with a resounding command to the horse: "Go forth, and return a winner!"

Unless invited by a contrada, you're probably not going to get into any of the packed churches for this, so your best strategy is to stick around the Campo all day. Because standing in the center of the Campo for the race is free (the grandstands require tickets), you should ideally stake out a spot close to the start-finish line before 2pm. Just before 5pm, the pageantry begins, with processions led by a contingent from Montalcino in honor of it harboring the last members of the Sienese Republic in the 16th century. The palio banner is drawn about the piazza in the War Chariot (a wagon drawn by two snowy white oxen), and contrada youths in Renaissance garb juggle colorful banners in the sbandierata flag-throwing display.

At 7:30pm (7pm in July) the horses start lining up between two ropes. Much care is taken to get the first nine in perfect order. After countless false starts and equine finagling, suddenly the 10th horse comes thundering up from behind, and as soon as he hits the first rope the second one is dropped and the race is on. Three laps and fewer than 90 seconds later, it's over. The winning contrada bursts into songs celebrating its greatness, losers cry in each other's arms, and those who suspect their jockeys of double-crossing them chase the hapless men -- whose horses don't stop running at the finish line -- through the streets, howling for blood. The winners truly live it up -- their party goes on for several days.

If standing in the middle of the hot and crowded Campo doesn't attract you -- and anyone with a small bladder might want to think twice, as there are no facilities and no one is allowed in or out from just before the procession until the race is over (about 3 1/2 hr.) -- you can try to buy a ticket for a seat in the grandstands or at a window of one of the buildings surrounding the piazza. These are controlled by the building owners and the shops in front of which the stands are set up and cost anywhere from 350€ for a single seat to about 1,500€ for a window seating four people. They can sell out a year in advance; the tourist office has contacts for the individual shops and buildings if you want to negotiate directly for a seat. If you show up late and sans ticket, make your way up Via Giovanni Duprè to Piazza del Mercato behind the Palazzo Pubblico; the police stationed there will sometimes allow people into the Campo between the processions and the race itself.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.