Ciao my pets! Today I want to talk about an event that I attended at the beginning of this month, one that I have wanted to be a part of for over three years: Il Palio. For those of you who don’t know, Il Palio is a crazy-as-balls 350 year-old horse race that takes place in Siena twice during the summer, once on July 2nd and again on August 16th. For lots of detailed information about the race and ways to witness the madness, visit this website: http://www.ilpalio.org/palioenglish.htm
The very basic version is as follows: Siena is a medieval hill town located in the Tuscany region. It grew up about the same time as Florence, but since the latter had access to the Arno River it prospered quickly and overpowered its hilly neighbor. Siena is divided into seventeen districts called “contradas” which are represented by certain symbols like the dragon, the she-wolf, and the snail. At each Palio, ten districts compete in a mad dash three times around a dirt track that has been laid down in their largest piazza, Il Campo. As if it’s not insane enough to gallop around those hairpin turns, the entire race is completely bareback. For the uninitiated, this means no saddle and no stirrups. For the truly uninitiated, I’ll just say this: you try holding on to 1500 lbs of galloping horse with nothing but the strength of your legs and maybe a hand in the mane.
When I visited Siena three years ago and heard about the race, I knew that I wanted to come back and witness it for myself, and once I got really involved with horses the following year I became even more determined. So when I finished the new book and had some free time on my hands, I realized that I could very easily take a few day trips down to Siena for Il Palio. From Florence, it’s usually about an hour and a half by train, thought that does vary. To check local times, I like to use virail.com, but I recommend just buying the tickets in the station since the website usually overcharges by a pinch. WARNING: the last train from Siena back to Florence leaves at 21:20 (or 9:20 pm), and you can easily make this train after the race if you don’t lollygag.
The events of the race actually begin June 29th with the selection of the horses that will compete in the race. They start with about thirty and have mini races to test them out, often choosing the most trustworthy horses rather than the fastest ones. I missed all of that because it started very early and I got a little sidetracked when trying to reach the city center. So you won’t make my mistakes, here’s how to get there from the train station:
- Cross the street to the mall and start taking escalators once you’re inside, you should use a total of eight. This’ll get you up the hillside.
- After the last escalator, exit the glass doors and turn left. You’ll start seeing signs with a bulls-eye on them, but these will abandon you soon enough so don’t get too comfortable.
- The street you’re on will connect with the city walls; go right and keep following the bulls-eyes. You can go in the walls themselves if you’d like to explore. You’ll flirt with the walls off and on for several minutes.
- You’ll come to this weird intersection thing that sort of switchbacks up a very mild hill; ignore it and go around the corner of the old walls. You should start seeing pretty trees lining the paths in front of you. You’ll pass a big fountain and a decent-sized parking lot. Pay attention for the merchant stalls, and take the very next big street that goes right.
- You’ll come to the church of the dragon contrada; you can pop in if you want, it’s quite lovely. Keep following the main road in, and you’ll start seeing signs for “Piazza Il Campo.” Easy as that! When all else fails, follow a tour group or ask directions.
Around lunch time they select the ten horses who will be racing, and then each participating contrada draws lots. Jockeys can be changed up until the day of the race, but once a horse has been matched with a contrada it’s a done deal. Neighborhoods follow their horse through the streets of Siena, cheering and singing songs with scarves tied around their shoulders like capes. I witnessed these parades more than once, and they were inspiring. Siena takes its horses seriously; if a jockey is thrown and the horse keeps racing and takes first place, that contrada still wins. When I was here three years ago in late May (which was nearly ten months after the last race) we visited the stall of the previous winner, and there were still flowers hanging on the door. Oh, and on the day of the race each horse is blessed by a priest in the contrada’s local church. If the horse poops in the church, it’s supposed to be a sign of good luck.
That afternoon, the first of six trial runs begins. The track is cleared, and the horses are cantered around the track three times to help them get used to it (a canter is a three-beat gait that is usually very fast, but not as fast as a gallop) and to help the jockeys bond with their horses. A ridiculous amount of people attend the trial runs, nearly as many as on race day. While we’re on the subject, you can stand in the middle of the piazza for free (there really isn’t a bad spot since it’s a bit sunken in), or you can pay money to sit on the wooden bleachers or in someone’s window. Being a poor traveler and action-lover, I stuck it out in the piazza and I’m glad I did. When I want to, I can possess the patience of the ages, so I camped out right by the railing on the downward slope, and the pictures are pretty fantastic. It’s a great atmosphere and a bit more relaxed than the actual race, so if you’re in a position to take multiple trips to Siena or you can stay for a few days, I recommend checking out one of the trial runs.
On the day of the actual race, I took my temporary flatmate Douglas with me because I was an idiot and bought a ticket for two adults rather than two individual adult tickets (since I would be making two separate trips). I will forever be in his debt, both for making the trip much more enjoyable and for letting me make back my €17. We arrived in the city center around 3:00 pm and wandered for a bit, eating gelato and dodging all of the crazy people. Since he’d never been to Siena, I suggested that he go visit the Duomo while I camped out in the piazza again. By the way, if you ever visit Siena (which you should do), go to the Duomo. The entire inside is done in stripes of black and white marble and it is to die for.
Some general tips for race day:
- Don’t touch the horses. Don’t ever, ever touch the horses.
- If you want to lean against the barrier in the middle of the piazza, get there by 3:00 at the latest and be ready to wait.
- Don’t forget water and sun screen, as most of the piazza is in direct sunlight until right before the race, but don’t overdo it because once they close the piazza to clear the track you’re stuck there. You can fill water bottles at the Fountain of Joy, which is at the top of the piazza.
- Don’t be frustrated when it takes a while for the race to start. You might notice most of the horses gathered in a line, moving and nipping at each other, with one rider pacing back and forth behind them. That last rider is actually the one who decides when the race starts; the moment he crosses the line the race begins, so he’ll wait until his opponents are at a disadvantage.
- The race only lasts about 70 seconds, so don’t blink or fiddle around for your camera; BE PREPAAAAAAAARED. Sorry.
- Once the race is over, it’s time to leave unless you’re planning to stay overnight. If you’re facing the large building with the tower at the bottom of the piazza, DO NOT take the exit to your left. This is where the victorious contrada is heading and you can’t beat them. Either take a different path to the right, or wait until the parade has already passed. Douglas and I thought we had plenty of time, and we ended up being caught right in their path as the horse was coming up, and he was not a happy camper. Between an upset stallion and hundreds of screaming, shoving Italians, things got dicey for a bit.
- If you do get caught up in the parade, don’t fight it. Just walk along, and you’ll actually make it through the crowd a lot faster.
On the way out, you can pick up a scarf from the winning contrada for about €8, which I think makes a super cool souvenir. To make an awesome day even better, the contrada of the dragon won! DRAGOOOOOOOOO!!