There cannot be many horse races in the world similar to the Palio di Siena – 90 seconds or so of pure mayhem around a city square packed with more than 50,000 screaming spectators. Twice every year – on July 2nd and August 16th – this wonderfully preserved medieval city in the heart of Tuscany comes to life like nowhere else in Europe.
The piazza in the centre of old Siena, known as Il Campo, is, for the majority of the year, one of Italy’s most beautiful and atmospheric small squares. Shaped something like a Roman amphitheatre, with the Palazzo Pubblico as the straight base line, or, as it’s often described, a shell with scalloped edges, eleven tiny streets feed into the square. Balconies, windows and roof turrets conveniently overlook Il Campo – all of which are crammed with people on race days.
In common with most other public piazzas, it was common for public games and activities to be held here in the Middle Ages. Jousting, fighting, bullfightsand street races were all known to have been popular in Siena. The first recorded running of what has become the Palio actually took place on July 2nd, 1656 – the Feast of the Visitation and the local fiesta in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano.
The second edition of the race, on August 16th, always takes place the day following the Feast of the Assumption. The pre-race partying and preparation begins on June 29th for the July race and on August 13th for the second running. Very occasionally, a third race will be held to commemorate some great public event but these are very rarely held.
Most people have seen film of the actual horse race around the city’s square. Jockeys and horses have to complete three circuits – although, actually, it is possible for a horse to win without its jockey on board as long as it still has all its head adornments in place as it crosses the winning line. The race is a fiercely contested competition between Siena’s seventeen city wards but only ten are permitted to enter each race. Every effort is made to choose mixed breed horses of approximately equal ability for the races and various trials are held before each event. Very heavy betting is known to take place and there are many tales – some of which will not be apocryphal – of ‘skullduggery’ such as doping and bribery taking place.
The race itself always follows a spectacular medieval pageant through the streets and the square – known as the Corteo Storico. The local carabinieri will charge around the track with their swords held high – in itself almost as frightening as the race! By this time, of course, every possible vantage point in Il Campo has long since been occupied. There are 33,000 seats somehow squashed into the arena – which will have been bought well before the day of the race – and another 28,000 or so packed into the centre of the square itself. Goodness knows how many are precariously perched on rooftops or wedged between street walls.
After the detonation of a terrifyingly loud firework, the race will begin. Although the street corners have been padded and dirt put onto the cobbles, this is still a dangerous activity. There’s quite a slope to the circuit and the jockeys are not only allowed to whip their own mounts – they’re also quite entitled to whip other horses or jockeys!
After the race, the parties continue for long into the night – especially in the streets of the winning district.
Siena, south of Florence and linked by the toll-free RA03 autostrada, is a fascinating small city – although drivers will have to accept that there is absolutely no chance of taking their cars into it. Ample, well signposted parking is available outside the old city walls but, on Palio days, this will fill up quite early, The nearest airports are at Florence and Pisa, which have rail links to Siena, although you might need to change at Empoli. Florence is a one hour bus ride away, with a regular service, and there are also less frequent but still reasonable services to both Rome and Milan.
Accommodation in Siena itself is at a real premium during the days leading up to and including the Palio – details can be found at www.aboutsiena.com – but, of course, this part of Tuscany is not excatly lacking in suitable places to stay during the summer!
The Palio di Siena has its own website with loads of interesting information about the festival.