Il Palio – the world’s great horse race

I finally made it to my first Triple Crown horse race a few weeks ago, the Belmont Stakes, where I’ll Have Another did not have another. Since I chose the Europe life, I have yet to see the alleged spectacle my friends tell me is Preakmess (yes that is spelled correctly), or the old fashioned debacle that my roommates told me is Kentucky Derby.

Despite the epic stories, none of these compare to the crowning jewel of them all, Il Palio di Siena. I had the privilege of launching my summer 2011 vacation with one last Bus2alps trip to the Palio. Our crew of mainly University of South Florida and Texas students took over a prime location right in the middle of the main square and went nuts as this epic race, and spectacle whirled past us at a blistering pace. It was such an incredible experience that three weeks ago I found myself criticizing the anti-climactic allure of the Belmont Stakes. “If you want to see a real horse race, you all need to go to Siena.” Needless to say, the men in seersucker suits and women in giant floppy hats were not amused.

Il Palio is a special race because of its historical and cultural implications. The city of Siena is broken up into 16 contrade, or districts, all of which still have lasting territorial rivalries. Despite Siena being a city, it is the geographical size of a small town. Each contrade is at the most 10 square blocks. Now consider high school rivalries in a state that kind of cares about sports, like Texas. You absolutely despise the other 16 teams in your county. You hate them so much you will drive 2 hours just to spray paint your logo on their school and kidnap their mascot (human, animal, or stuffed).

Now imagine that school spirit magnified. You grow up in your contrada, you do not marry or befriend anyone outside of your contrada, and you live the rest of your life in your 10 block radius. Imagine that your bitter rivals live a five minute walk from you home. Then imagine that once a year there is a horse race held in the main square of your city, which is not circular, has uphill sections, and has no rules. Jockeys are fully grown men who ride bareback in medieval attire, and are allowed to do anything it takes to win. The winner brings home Siena’s most coveted prize; pride. That is Il Palio di Siena.

Grown men and women cry inconsolably. Elderly women give out jugs of wine to anyone looking for celebration. If you thought people in Boston were happy when the Red Sox finally won the World Series, you did not see the tearful joy of middle-aged families who last year finally won for the first time in their lives.

This is the most important moment the Sienese residents years, and for some lucky winners, their lives. That is why, no matter how close someone gets to completing the Triple Crown, I would opt to fly to Siena for Il Palio, then to take a train to Belmont.

Il Palio di Siena occurs twice a summer, in early July and the middle of August. Accommodation is expensive and must be booked far in advance. Most people opt to take a day trip from Florence. Bus2alps operates a day trip to Siena for the July event. To find out more details click here

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