Siena, Italy: Palio Horse Race
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Siena, Italy: Palio Horse Race

August 13, 2019


Across Europe, festival
traditions go back centuries, and are filled with time-honored
pageantry and ritual. Entire communities
hurl themselves with abandon into the craziness. There’s no better example
than here in Italy: Siena’s Palio. Twice a year,
that spirit shows itself in a five-century-old
city-wide competition that culminates in
a crazy horse race. Siena is divided into 17
neighborhoods, or “contrade.” With their mascots and flags, these have long been competitive
and filled with rivalry. [ Crowd singing in Italian ] Each July and each August, the entire city readies itself
for the big race. Its centerpiece, Il Campo, is transformed into
a medieval racetrack as tons of clay
are packed atop the cobbles, and bleachers are set up. Before the race, competing neighborhoods gather
for communal dinners that last well into the night. There are rousing choruses with everybody cheering
their “contrada.” [ Crowd singing in Italian ] For days, processions break out
across the city. With waving flags
and pounding drums, it all harkens back
to the Middle Ages, when these rituals
boosted morale before battle. [ Applause ] A highlight of the parade is the
actual banner, or “palio.” This “palio,”
featuring the Virgin Mary, (to whom the race is dedicated), will be awarded to
the victorious “contrada.” Finally, with what seems like the entire city
packed into Il Campo, it’s race time. Bleachers and balcony seats
are expensive, but it’s free to join the masses
in the middle. The snorting horses and
their nervous riders line up, jockeying for the best spot. Silence takes over. Once the rope drops,
there’s one basic rule: There are no rules. [ Indistinct cheering ] They race bareback like crazy
while spectators go wild. Life stops for these
frantic three laps… just 90 seconds. [ Cheering continues ] When the winner
crosses the line, the winning “contrada”
goes berserk. Tears of joy flow,
people embrace. The winners
thunder through the streets and eventually
into the cathedral, filled with jubilation. Then the winners raise
their coveted “palio” high: Champions…until the next race.

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  1. and the winners beat on drums in the plaza at midnight on Friday nights. Put your clothes back on and join them cause you're not going to stop them.

  2. In 2016, Rick Steves came to Siena in July for the Siena’s Palio, to live in person the atmosphere of this incredible event that goes on for centuries twice a year, on the 2nd of July and on the 16th of August.

    He loved to mingle with the crowd during the festivities, that goes on in the days after and before the race:

    The day before the race I joined a crowd in the main square, Il Campo, to see the jockeys — mostly hired hands from out of town — get to know their horses in a practice run called the “charge of the carabinieri.” At midnight that night, the streets were filled with eating, drinking, singing, and camaraderie, as neighborhoods gathered to pump each other up.”
    Siena is just 20 minutes away from Borgo Argenina, the perfect location to stay if you want to experience the Palio like Rick Steves did!

  3. I was there once, in the middle of the square. We could only see by holding up mirrors. Buy the seats! It was exciting even if we couldn't see much!

  4. If you haven’t watched it yet, search for Palio Straordinario 2018, or Palio 20-10-2018.
    A bit “extreme”… but worth to watch. Unique.

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