Europe 17 – Il Palio

Il Palio (1)

Siena, Italy
July 2 and August 16
How long?
2-4 days including associated festivities
Siena’s legendary bareback horserace – Il Palio – is a highly charged, death-defying two-minute dash around the boundary of the city’s majestic and equally famous Piazza del Campo. It’s also likely to be the most rabidly partisan event you’ll ever witness. Twice every summer, riders elected by each of the city’s ancient districts – the contrade – compete in a bid to win the much prized palio, or banner, that gives its name to the event. Following the race, the winning jockey is feted, and the residents of his district sing, dance and celebrate his victory into the small hours.
A Sienese Palio of some sort has existed for roughly a thousand years, and in its present form since the late sixteenth century. It is so critical an event to the Sienese that during all this time it has only been cancelled on a handful of occasions, and only then due to war or natural disaster. During Renaissance times it became the main annual expression of the rivalry between the different sectors of the city, taking the place of various other warlike events, which often involved hundreds of combatants and left a number of dead and wounded. The first Palio was run and celebrated on Piazza del Campo in 1597, and repeated in 1605, after which the July 2 Palio became an established annual event – being joined in 1701 by the August 16 race. Early on, the races were consecrated to the Virgin Mary and her feast days in order to atone for a soldier who had fired in rage at her image, and since 1657 her effigy has adorned the prize that goes to the race’s winner – the showy banner, or palio.
At the heart of the Palio are the contrade – the districts of Siena. Despite the city’s small size, these districts have bitter, sometimes vicious rivalries, and the Palio is essentially a competition among them. The origins of the contrade are lost in the mists of medieval history, but most authorities surmise that they evolved from the military organization of the citizenry – a notion that is certainly borne out by the pugnacious nature of their enmities. Sound like fun? It is. But the palio is also an utterly unique event, and one in which all of Italy’s extremes are on display _ the fairytale grandeur of the architecture; the colourful vibrancy of the costumes and banners; the stifling heat and packed crowds; the frenetic, desperate mood of the participants and fans; the arcanely complicated, ironclad traditions; and, not least, the shocking potential for brutality and behind-the-scenes sleaze.

For the locals, this is no mere mild-mannered tourist fluff. On the two days that the Palio takes place – as well as throughout the exacting preparations – the Sienese are playing for very high stakes indeed, and, during the event, the air positively crackles with the seriousness of the business. Sometimes bloody, even deadly, the Palio is frenzied high energy all the way.
To do the Palio justice, you really need to spend several days in Siena and witness as much of the build-up as possible. Failing that, if all you can manage is the day of the race, stake your claim around lunchtime (earlier if possible) in the standing-room-only centre of the Piazza del Campo. Bring plenty of bottled water and something to protect you from the heat of the sun as you’ll be in it for the next six to eight hours. Because of the radical slant of the Campo, it’s fairly easy for everyone to see most of the goings-on, but there’s no denying that a spot at the very edge of the crowd, lining the course itself, offers the best thrill. Wooden barriers, bales of hay, mattresses and the like, are set up to protect not only the horses and jockeys but also the spectators.
If you’re lucky enough to know someone or can blag your way in, or are willing to pay an exorbitant sum for a ticket well in advance, then you can watch the whole thing in relative comfort, either from the stands around the periphery or, better still, from one of the balconies. The seating here is pretty much the preserve of local dignitaries but some seats are left over – contact Inltaly for details on prices and options for tourists, but reckon on paying around €500 for a seat in the stands and up to €1000 for a place on the balcony.
During the frenetic minute-and-a-half of the race itself, the crowd goes wild, cursing and yelling until the thing is over, when, following the concluding ceremonious shots and drum-rolls, some exult and many weep. Spontaneous triumphant processions erupt, with partying into the night, and on the following day, there’s another, official parade in honour of the winning contrada. Bear in mind, though, that however long you’re in town, you will essentially remain a tourist. The Palio is something that the Sienese do for themselves. They feel – and it is no doubt true – that only they can understand and appreciate its essential meaning. The fact is that they hold “Palio tourists” in some slight degree of contempt, and at best only tolerate outsiders’ presence during the ritual – be prepared for certain streets to be blocked off entirely during Palio days, so that contrade members can celebrate with private outdoor dinners at tables groaning with the weight of feasting fare. These are definitely “members-only” affairs: respect the barricades and take a detour. Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had. For days before the race, young contrada members, wearing their traditional colours and clutching their favourite talisman or lucky fetish, chant and sing in packs on the street. Each contrada has its own, often obscene, lyrics to the same melody; you won’t understand the words unless your Sienese is tip-top, but be assured that they ain’t singing nursery rhymes as they try to belittle and intimidate their rivals. Everyone stays up till the early hours, strutting and swaggering around the city centre.

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