Don’t miss out on Italy’s hidden treasure in Tuscany, the medieval horse race of Il Palio.
Picture the Kentucky Derby … now sub the floppy hats for medieval garb and throw in a few thousand screaming Italians and you’ve got yourself the Siena Palio, one of the craziest horse races in all of the world.
Known locally as Il Palio, the Palio di Siena is a horse race that takes place twice a year in Siena, Italy. This event is much more than just a horse race, however, as it attracts thousands of visitors from all parts of the globe. Although the race only lasts about 90 seconds, the festivities that surround it are well worth the trip.
The race consists of ten riders and horses, each one representing a different contrada (city ward). It’s quite a sight to see as the jockeys ride bareback, sometimes trying to push their rivals off of their horses around the famous Piazza del Campo, each decked out in the colors of their specific contrada. This event also carries much historical weight with origins dating well back to medieval times.
The first race takes place on July 2nd (this coming Saturday). Throughout the day, you’ll see the Piazza del Campo fill up with spectators claiming their spots and engaging in the day-time activities. Before the race is the Corteo Storico, a historical parade, that’s almost as famous as the race itself with flag-bearers, bishops, wavers, and carabinieri proceeding around the square to commence the start of the race.
The Palio differs from any other horse race in that of the extreme rivalry between contrade. These rivalries have culminated throughout hundreds of years and are invested with passion and pride. It’s almost as important to prevent rival contrade from winning as it is to actually have your own contrada succeed. Almost anything goes during this race as riders are equipped with whips to use on other horses (and on each other) and you may often see jockeys result to pushing and shoving in order to get ahead. It’s also not uncommon for a horse to finish the race without its rider, as many jockeys fall off while making the quick turns around the steep piazza. A little known fact is that a horse can actually still win the race even if its rider falls off. The contrade compete for the prize of the pallium (a hand-painted silk banner) although the real prize is the bragging-rights that follow.
Of course after the race, like every Italian event, the town erupts in massive celebration with street parties and festivals lasting well into the night. So trek on over to Siena this Saturday, pick your favorite contrada to cheer for, and join in on one of Italy’s most historic and exhilarating events!