Traffic heading into Siena from the autostrada was unusually heavy, I thought. Better fill my gas tank in case I’m stuck in a jam.
“A lot of traffic today” observed a well-dressed young man standing beside his car at the next pump. I agreed, in my careful American-accented Italian, and he continued in English, “It’s always like this for the Palio.”
In Your Bucket Because…
- The high spirits and partisanship of this race are infectious; just join a group and cheer.
- Despite being a major tourist attraction, the Palio is a home-grown local festival with centuries of tradition.
- Good for travelers who enjoy festivals filled with local color.
A light bulb flashed over my head. It was July 2, the weekend of the Palio. My first urge was to turn around and get out of town. I was here quite by accident on my way to southern Italy: I hadn’t considered that half of Tuscany, and every traveler within reach, would converge on the small medieval city of Siena to witness the mad-cap horse race through its main piazza.
But I was here, and despite my distaste for mob scenes, I asked the obvious: “Where would I be able to park?”
“Follow me to my parents’ house and park there. It’s not a long walk to Il Campo and your car will be safe.” He didn’t look like Jack the Ripper, or even the stereotypical Italian Lothario, so I followed his car to a strangely empty neighborhood.
“The Istrice contrada house is two streets that way,” he gestured toward the center of town as I stepped from the car. “Everyone is there.” I knew enough about the race to know that each neighborhood – contrada – had its club house. Clearly that’s where the action was.
“Have you been to the Palio before?” I hadn’t, so he explained as we walked. The race began as a buffalo race, when bullfighting was banned in the 1500s. It evolved into a horse race in 1656, and is now run twice each summer. Ten horses and their bareback riders, representing ten of Siena’s contrade, compete for a silk banner called the pallium. The jockeys don’t have to finish the race (and, he added, often do not); the prize is for the horse that finishes first.
At the Istrice Contrada
The contrada headquarters was easy to spot, with people spilling out into the street around it, and a big banner picturing a very prickly porcupine hanging in front.
“That’s us, the Istrice – porcupine,” Paulo told me. We’d introduced ourselves as we walked, and he told me that he worked in Milan, but always came home for the Palio.
The clubhouse was packed with people all talking at once, drinking dark Tuscan wine and eating from tables piled with food. I never did figure out how they simultaneously held plates, ate, drank and talked with both hands. I balanced a plateful of a delicious something made of pasta, fresh tomatoes and cheese and looked around. Overhead, more banners pictured the porcupine, a motif repeated on hats and jackets and scarves in what appeared to be the contrada’s colors: red, blue, black and white.
“Come meet our jockey,” Paulo invited, and I shook hands (more plate balancing) with a serious young man in a medieval costume. Everyone was slapping him on the back and wishing him “In bocca al lupo!” “In the wolf’s mouth?” I asked Paulo, puzzled. He laughed, “It means good luck!” Sort of like “break a leg” before going onstage, I thought.
The jockey left, his Istrice cheering squad behind him, and we followed. By now I was part of the contrada, and everybody included me in the general hubbub as though I could understand everything they said.
Narrow stone-paved streets that wind into the Centro Storico, Siena’s historic center, were already crowded with a boisterous blend contrada members wearing their various insignia and tourists like me, wearing cameras. Apart from our dress, I thought, Siena must look pretty much as it did when the race originated. A knight in armor wouldn’t look out of place.
Sure enough, right on cue, a figure loomed over the crowd in the narrow street ahead. On a decorated and armored horse rode a man completely encased in metal, as though riding in from another century.
We came into the piazza in front of the cathedral, the sun making the contrast between its stripes of black and white tuffa even more dramatic. Flags flew into the air in brilliant blazes of color, as costumed flag-throwers were cheered by rows of people in banner-draped balconies above.
We watched this aerial ballet of swirling flags, and stepped into the cathedral long enough for Paulo to show me the delicately carved stone pulpit, one of only three remaining by Nicola Pisano. The cathedral was as serene and cool as the piazza was noisy and hot.
The Race in Siena’s Piazza del Campo
By now there was an almost solid mass of people pressing on toward Piazza del Campo, a huge oval space surrounded by buildings so full of people in every window and balcony that walls seemed in danger of collapsing into the piazza from their weight. Below, the slanting piazza was a sea of people, most waving flags in support of their horse.
Paulo found a group of fellow Istrice partisans who were valiantly trying to save a few square feet of stone pavement for compatriots, under a big porcupine flag. It was hot, even in the late afternoon sun (Under the Tuscan Sun is not nearly so romantic in July, especially when shared with several thousand others, most of them sweating profusely) and noise had increased to decibel overload.
But the excitement in the air was contagious and I joined in the chants on behalf of the prickly beast with genuine enthusiasm. Surely it had reached its crescendo as time neared for the race, but people were still pouring in from all the side streets. I began to realize that the square was already so packed that there was no room for the horses to walk one-by-one, let alone gallop several abreast at breakneck speed.
“The course is marked,” Paulo assured me, and I could only hope that horses, riders and spectators knew where the markers were – and that they weren’t where I was standing. Noise, which I thought was already at its height, intensified suddenly into screaming cheers as the horses and their costumed riders burst into the upper end of the piazza.
In a frenzied moment, it was over. No one was trampled. Istrice didn’t win the pallium, but my dejected fellow supporters were philosophical.
“Il prossimo anno,” they shrugged…Next year…
- The Palio is held semi-annually, on July 2 and August 16.
- Lodging in the city is almost impossible to secure during the Palio unless reserved months ahead.
- Good hotel choices are Hotel Athena (+39 057 7 28 6313)
- and Borgo Scopeto Relais (+39 0577 320001)
- Siena’s APT tourist office is at Piazza del Campo 56 (+39 057 728 0551)
- Bus #3 runs between the train station, north of the city on Piazza F Rossetti, and Piazza Gramsci, a few blocks from Piazza del Campo.