Tuscany Tours - Palio di Siena
Tuscan Horse Race - Shaken and stirred
If you have seen the action packed trill ride start to James Bond's latest offering “Quantum of Solace” you will know what the spectacle the “Palio di Siena” is all about. The race is happens twice a year in the Tuscan town of Siena, on the 2nd July and 16th August and has been a seen in the “Piazza del Campo” in the town centre since 1656. It was organised in honour of an apparition of the Virgin Mary nearby.
Once such games and contests were a familiar sight throughout Europe but gradually over the centuries many of these traditional events were banned or faded away. In the seventeenth century they banned bullfighting in Siena as a result its residents took to racing each other on the backs of other creatures, initially buffalo and donkeys were the popular choice but by 1650 it was the horses you see today.
The area of Siena is divided into seventeen Contradas or districts that all compete for the prized Palio, a beautifully designed banner awarded each year to the winner of this famous horse race. Each Contradas has its own uniform very much like modern football teams. They include coats of arms, badges, differing colours and all have a patron saint and supporters. The teams include the she wolf, porcupine, the forest, the snail and the tortoise, each group attracting passionate followers.
The event itself consists of four days of celebrations, medieval costumed precessions and displays, culminating in flag throwing exhibitions, the parading of the jockeys, a cavalry charge by the mounted Carabinieri and then the race itself. Siena’s piazza is turned into a racecourse, the floor covered with earth, protective bleachers erected and stands put up for the 33,000 spectators. Many more people are crammed into every available window, roof and balcony to witness the event.
The race is a chaotic; bare backed white knuckled three lapse of the course around the Piazza del Campo. In this race the winner takes all and surprisingly enough it is not the last person to cross the line who is considered the looser but the second placed rider. The winning team then goes on to spend the next month celebrating, singing and drinking in praise of their victor.
Visitors to Siena get to see a celebration that stretches back centuries, includes the whole of the town, young and old, rich or poor; all have their part to play. In these modern days of corporate sponsorship and big business the Palio di Siena still maintains a medieval feel at its core and gives you a chance to step back in time to an age of passion.