Hold on to your seat, you are in for a wild ride at The Palio!
Before we even arrived at The Palio in Siena, I knew that it would be a vibrant, colorful spectacle, but it was way bigger than we imagined! The passion and emotion that runs through the crowd feels like a strong electric current. Not a seat or section of pavement was available and the famous Piazza del Campo was transformed into a carefully constructed racetrack with an audience of thousands of excited Italians, mostly from the walled city of Siena.
Through Palio Tours, we were fortunate to secure tickets in a bleacher section which surrounds the track. What we didn’t know until we were there was just how close we were to the dirt packed racetrack! Additionally, our seat positioning in the bleachers was extraordinary, just past the start, with a direct view of the famous clock tower and exactly the spot where the winning horse would stop and be adored by the winning contrada. Watching simultaneously absolute mayhem and absolute euphoria. A total pinch me moment.
The tickets stated we were to be seated “no later than 5:00pm ”, there were no bathrooms and the seats were quite cramped. Just think about crouching among strangers in ninety degree heat, waiting for 2 ½ hours. This is not a sporting event for the weak or unadventurous.
Next comes the parade and pageantry, the marching of each contrada, with the participants dressed in multi-colored medieval costumes and flag bearers tossing flags high in the air. Awe inspiring and hours long, we were spellbound. Truthfully though, by the two-hour mark, we were squirming in our seats, longing to stand and stretch. We did manage to stand up several times for a couple of minutes to try to relieve the leg and back cramps and stiffness. Like I said, this event is for the brave and adventurous! But any discomfort we suffered was totally worth it!
The Evening Before the Race – The Contrada Dinner
Ah the Contrada Dinner!
Part of the Palio package included a seat at the table of the contrada dinner. We were honorary members of Oca, the Goose Contrada. Each of the seventeen contradas or “neighborhoods” is represented by a symbol like the Goose, the Caterpillar or the Dragon as an example. To learn more about the contradas, click here.
Over 2,000 Oca members and honored guests attended this dinner at 9:30pm on the evening prior to the race. The meal is cooked and served by the members of the contrada and many songs can be heard as well as lively chanting and a few speeches (all in Italian of course) Check out the meal and the incredible tables of guests!
Day of the Race, just a few hours before
Additionally, the Palio Tours package included a short tour of the city of Siena where we were able to learn the history of the Palio. We stepped inside hundreds of years of history and were now privy to the inner workings of this important race.
In addition to learning the history from our expert guide Cristina (who was out of this world amazing) we also attended the blessing of the horse. In each contrada neighborhood there is a small church where the local members attend. Many members of the Goose Contrada (our honorary contrada) lined up in blistering heat to wait for the priest to bless the horse.
We waited and waited and watched person after person stand in front of us until I could no longer see. We have heard that in some contradas the horse actually goes inside the church, but our experience was that the horse was brought in to the courtyard. However, I could listen and imagine as the crowd cheered, sang and spoke the Lord’s Prayer (in Italian of course). I had chills.
There are many details and traditions that make this entire event so unique and so incredible. We were so well prepared for the Palio which made it an even richer, more intense and understandable adventure. Because of the tour company, everything went like clockwork for us! From the driver picking us up at the Villa (Can you imagine trying to park with the thousands of spectators in a strange city?) to the touring of Siena, to the amazing contrada dinner, to the extraordinary seat location, to the actual race. It was all so exhilarating!
Strategy, negotiations, bribery and intimidation are all present as the jockeys, who are riding bareback, make deals for positioning. For this Palio, an unusual strategy was imposed when one of the jockeys actually blocked the entrance of another rider from entering the starting area. This dance of will lasted for ninety minutes and included two false starts. After speaking with a local friend, he explained that this was fairly unusual to see one rider completely block another. Remember this is a “no rules” race and anything is possible. The cash prize for the winning rider could be in the hundreds of thousands to millions of Euros, this is serious business.
On the third start, the race was on and the crowd literally went wild. In the first sharp turn of the race, two jockeys fell off of their horses and stretchers were brought out to carry them off. Their horses continued to race riderless for the next two laps of the Palio. If you watch the video carefully you can see them fall off! No I am not kidding.
The winning jockey was from the Dragon contrada and as he crossed the finish line the spectators jumped the fence and rushed the winning duo. Absolute hysteria ensued. We witnessed a human intensity unlike anything any one of us had ever experienced. There was crying and jubilation, to anguish and sorrow from the losers.
We waited until the celebrating moved to another area of the track before we made our escape to a lovely outdoor ristorante near the Piazza del Campo. We enjoyed a delicious, late night Italian dinner, bottles of rosé and celebrated our successfully surviving the Palio adventure!
Would I do it again?
Absolutely! Would I encourage others to go? Absolutely! We get few chances in this life for adventure and we should all step out of our regular lives to experience something as intense and unusual as The Palio.
I will also add that my lovely 78-year-old mother endured these extremely hot temps, crowds she never thought she would see, dirt and dust, leg cramping, anxiety mixed with a little fear, but she was so happy to have completed this family travel adventure. She also did it with a huge smile and impressive enthusiasm. To do this as a family filled my heart with love and I shed several tears as well. We talk about our trip quite often and marvel at how unique this sporting event truly is. Nothing will prepare you for the pageantry and passion these Sienese fans feel for this race.
The Palio is held twice a year on July 2 and August 16, therefore there are two opportunities to celebrate and anticipate the outcome each year. Every local person we spoke with looked forward to and cherished this time each year to plan, strategize, theorize and hope to emerge the winner. They do hold grudges against their enemies and can retell stories of races decades old as well as recent race memories. It’s amazing.
If attending The Palio is something you think you would enjoy, DO IT! So few Americans see this incredible event and we were the lucky ones! I highly recommend Palio Tours. Stan will make sure that everything goes well and he even suggested our fantastic restaurant post-Palio. Our entire tour was executed seamlessly. But don’t wait to make your reservation, we made ours a year in advance, there are very few tickets and they go fast!
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