By Tiernan Cutler
Sun beating down as you stand shoulder to shoulder with thousands of screaming, crying and chanting fans all dawning brightly colored flags. You may think I’m describing your typical Italian soccer game, but guess again. You are in the midst of the oldest horse race in the world, the Siena Palio.
Siena is a medieval Tuscan town that is home to 17 different neighborhoods, or as the locals call them, contrade. Twice a year all of Siena and thousands of spectators flood to the city center to assemble in the square, Piazza del Campo, to show their district pride. All is calm the day of the race, as the square fills up and the ancient parade commences.
Drummer boys, flag throwers and knights in full armor strut around the square, each trying to prove their contrada is a worthy contender. This is then followed by the most riveting 90 seconds of your life. When the gun goes off, the horses and riders become a blur of color as they commence their 3-lap journey of the piazza. Watching from the center of the action, you rotate on the spot, trying to keep an eye on your horse and clench your fists in anticipation of the deadly fall that will inevitably take place on the 90 degree turn that tends to get the best of the jockeys. As the remaining of the horses turn the last corner you being to move with the crowd towards the finish line as the spectators vault the gate screaming cries of joy or sorrow while the winners scramble up the scaffolding displaying the prize, the banner of Il Palio, and of course district bragging rights for a full year.
Never will you see so many grown men cry in one place. To top it off, as the winner processes around the piazza, all members of the winning contrada fall in line with pacifiers in their mouths as a symbol of rebirth, which they will keep in their mouths for up to a week after winning the race. Medieval Times and the Kentucky Durby have nothing on the Palio…
Bus2alps is a student travel agency that offers a day trip to Siena to experience the Palio first hand every July 2nd. For more information, please click here.