Medieval horseracing, Siena style
When people think of taking a trip to Italy, and its must see destinations, places that inevitably roll off the tongue are Rome, Florence,Venice, and Pisa.
By Ben Wise
WHEN people think of taking a trip to Italy, and its must see destinations, places that inevitably roll off the tongue are Rome, Florence,Venice, and Pisa. As one of the most amazing countries on earth though, Italy has many hidden gems that travellers would be well advised to check out.
Siena is one such place. Visitors to Siena can have a sensational day simply walking around through the sandy coloured streets, with the narrow alleyways and gentle inclines providing a sense of charm. Plus, the town’s Duomo is definitely a visual highlight.
Though enchanting at any time of the year, the bi-yearly Palio held in Siena’s famous square know as the Piazza del Campo is something that will always be remembered by those lucky enough to witness its spectacle. The Palio is an unrelenting horse race run around the perimeter of the Piazza (held on 2 July and 16 August every year). Fearless jockeys ride the horses bareback, and the fifty thousand raucous people watching from the centre of the racetrack assure an amazing atmosphere. Thousands more look on from the bleachers and balconies in the Piazza on the outer.
A rather tranquil town at other times of the year, Siena becomes a vibrant hub of excitement during il Palio. This spectacular medieval town is divided into 17 separate neighbourhoods known as contrada. Each contrada decorates the walls of their buildings with the colourful flags of their horses’ racing colours and the distinctive animal emblems representing their respective areas. The locals wear scarves and clothing proudly symbolising which contrada they are from. Whilst visitors may think that all the effort made is in the aid of tourism, this could not be further from the case. The event is very serious business to the Sienese.
Over fast, celebrated slow
The race lasts only ninety seconds, but the elected captain of each contrada will have carried out months of preparation in selecting the horse and jockey that will represent their people. Only ten horses will compete in the main event after a selection process comprising a ballot and inter contrada politics. The rivalry between certain contrada is intense, and even today it is ill advised for a local to marry someone from a rival contrada.
In the days leading up to the actual Palio, there are trial races which offer the crowds a taste of the exhilaration to come. On the day of the main race, visitors are advised to get a position in the centre of the Piazza, which is free of charge, by around 4.30pm. After this, the area is sealed off until after the completion of the race. For those wanting to obtain a reserved seat in the bleachers, advance planning is a necessity. There is also the option of paying to witness the event from a private balcony.
From another world and time
The atmosphere on race day is unbelievable. The contrada sing their local anthems, fights can break out, and the booming sound from the canon firing never fails to startle. The whole Piazza is buzzing with anticipation. After the traditional pre-race formalities take place to the deafening cheers and singing from the crowd, the horses enter the Piazza and the madness is ready to begin.
The frenzied race is completed after the winning horse does three laps of the circuit. The ninety seconds is anything but uneventful, with horses breaking down under the strain and jockeys being thrown from their mounts. The winner does not even have to finish with its jockey, and often doesn’t. The celebrations at the end of the race are overwhelming to say the least.
As accommodation in Siena during the Palio is scarce unless booked a long time in advance, it is a good idea to use Florence as a base for day trips to the Palio. The regular buses take just over an hour to arrive at Siena’s main bus terminal, and it is a short walk to Piazza del Campo.
The race that starts Siena
Other than the race, Siena has so much to offer visitors around the period of the Palio. The evening before the event sees Siena en masse have outdoor candlelit dinners where visitors can find themselves lucky enough to be adopted by a contrada. Useful information aboutSiena and the Palio can be accessed at www.terresiena.it.
If the Melbourne Cup is the race that stops the nation, the Palio is a race that definitely starts the beautiful town of Siena.