There are events that we experience and we are able to describe and explain, trying to convey feelings and emotions so people that have not attended them can get as close as they can to the situation.
And then there is Palio.
I thought I could actually describe Palio (and I tried, with my two previous posts) but the reality is that, for much details and information you provide, no one can really explain the essence of Palio.
I am not from Siena and I have moved to the area very recently so I definitely have no presumption on this subject but I know one thing: as soon as you step in Piazza del Campo on the Palio race day and you lift your eyes to the balconies, the windows, the roofs or any other opening, jammed with people flagging the contrada colours, you cannot feel anything else than tension. Multiply that for a thousand times and I think you can get a rough idea of what contradaioli experience during the Palio days – better said, throughout the whole year.
One the day of the Palio (July 2nd and August 16th) the historical parade goes on for a time that feels almost interminable, just adding more suspense and expectation to the race itself.
Then the Palio (a silk hand painted drape, dedicated to the Madonna di Provenzano in July or the Assumption of Mary in August) enters, greeted and waved by thousands; at the end of the day that is why everyone is gathering in Piazza del Campo twice a year.
When the last access to the square from Via Dupre’ is closed (usually half an hour before the race starts), that’s it: you are locked in.
At that point the square is still noisy and constantly moving, people trying to gain a good spot for a better view particularly of the Mossa area, where fate is decided.
As soon as the white envelope containing the starting order appears and goes from the Mossa down to the hands of the Mossiere, the square suddenly fells to a surreal silence. If there is still someone chatting, people will immediately shout for silence.
The starting order is called out by the Mossiere, accompanied with the usual cheers or boos from the crowd (and plenty of swearing too), depending on whether their contrada is next to an ally one or a rival.
At this point, the die is cast. Being a good jockey and having a good horse is not enough. Strategies, silent agreements, threats and bribes play an equally important part (have a look at my previous post for more details).
The run-in horse gives the start to the other 9 and, unless the Mossa (the start) has to be repeated for irregularities (which happens often, and more than once), 90 seconds is all the race lasts.
Imagine a whole year condensed in these 90 seconds and you might be able to understand what follows….
What happens next is even more striking. The winning horse (and the jockey) gets literally sucked in a flow of people that, with the horses still running, climb over the fences, frenzied and I would say almost possessed. The winning horse is kissed and profusely hugged and the jockey is lifted above the crowd and he will stay there for few hours, carried around the city and brought up to the Duomo (in August).
In the meantime in the square you will see a bit of everything: people screaming and throwing themselves to the ground being literally dragged out by their friends (because their rival contrada won), people crying of joy and restlessly hugging other contradaioli around because their contrada won two Palio in a year (La Lupa, this year), people rushing to the fences, falling down and pushing as fast as they possibly can to reach the winning horse/jockey….
And the Palio? Those that have not rushed to get the jockey up in the air have literally climbed up the Mossa to get the Palio down. The Palio is then taken on a procession (with the jockey) to the Duomo, through the streets of Siena and then to the tiny church of the winning contrada where its contradaioli (and not only them) pay respect. Pictures, selfies, smiles and plenty of tears, again.
Still think that this is just a 90-second horse race…?
Siena Palio is over. All the stress, anxiety and excitement of the Palio days (or better to say of the year, for the Senesi) was over in just a couple of minutes last Saturday evening. La Lupa contrada won, after 27 years. At the moment, for as much I try hard I can’t think of any other sport or event that lasts so short and that profoundly marks a part of a city in a matter of seconds.
The fact that la Lupa contrada won is undoubtedly important (particularly for la Lupa contrada itself, of course) but that meant a true catastrophe for the contrada of the Istrice, its forever rival. The two contrada horses were next to each other at the starting line and the animosity was clear. As I wrote in my previous post, for a contrada that races in the Palio, winning is as equally important as making sure that its rival doesn’t win. That happened on July 2nd and I suppose that was the worst nightmare for the Istrice contrada and all its contradaioli. I was watching the Palio in a bar in the Istrice contrada and the fact that la Lupa won completely changed the mood of the evening, at least for this part of the city: minutes after the result, flocks of people abandoned Siena streets, head down with tears in their eyes, walking back fast pace towards Istrice contrada headquarter. A funeral would be the best way I could describe the atmosphere, and I am absolutely serious. When I say proper tears, I mean that I have never seen so much distress in such a vast group of people of all ages: from kids up to elderly people, the distress was patent and widespread and I felt a bit intrusive in being in the Istrice contrada in such a moment since, for much you would like to show empathy with people crying, you will never be able to fully understand the desperation of the contradaioli.
But let’s get back from the beginning…
Though the race itself starts at 7.45 PM, it is absolutely worth to be in Siena in the early afternoon of July 2nd (the same applies to August 16th) to attend the multitude of events collateral to the Palio that help to build up the whole atmosphere.
For various reasons, we had previously decided to not watch Palio inside Piazza del Campo but we still wanted to enjoy half a day in Siena, wandering down the streets packed with locals and foreigners alike.
If you are planning on watching the Palio inside Piazza del Campo, bear in mind that:
If you want to get a good spot, i.e. next to the Mossa (where the horses start) or at the finishing line, people will start arriving to secure a space next to the fence in the early afternoon. We entered the square around 4 PM and the best spots on the fence where already taken, so probably around 1 or 2 PM would be recommended.
At the time we arrived, almost all the square except a tiny part on the west corner was in the full sun. If you are planning on arriving early, come prepared: water, a hat or even a small umbrella to shade yourself and plenty of sun cream are an absolute must. The are a few stalls in Piazza del Campo that sell water (or there is a potable fountain, if you don’t mind the queue in the baking sun).
All the accesses to the square start to close around 4.30/5 PM, before the historical parade enters Piazza del Campo. The last access to be closed (at 6.45 PM) is in Via Dupre’ (from the contrada Onda).
In the square there are no toilets, so be prepared.
Once the last access to the square is closed, you can’t leave Piazza del Campo until the Palio is finished and nobody can’t really predict when that will be: lining up all the horses and starting can take a while and the Mossa can be repeated several times and, above all, it takes a while to empty a packed square.
Apart from the Palio race itself, the afternoon starts at 3.00/3.30 PM with the benediction of the horse and the jockey in each contrada church, a truly solemn moment. After the benediction, each contrada parades in its full costumes and flags down the street of Siena, stopping in Piazza Salimbeni, Casino dei Nobili, Chigi Saracini Palace and in Piazza del Duomo, waving flags and drumming. Choose one of these stops, and secure a space to have a good view (we choose Piazza Salimbeni standing on the steps of the central statue and we had a very good view).
Then, at around 4.30 PM the procession leaves the Piazza del Duomo and heads for Piazza del Campo. By pure chance we went up the tiny Via del Castoro and at the end of this street, just before the arch, it’s where the parades gather before entering Piazza del Duomo so you can get a few nice shots before entering the square.
Choosing to follow the parade means that you will not be able to secure a good place in Piazza del Campo but that’s a choice, of course; we found the parade in the streets absolutely fascinating and worth watching. The streets were busy but if you feel too congested just take a side road and it will be almost empty. We followed the parade, took our time in the streets and then head down to Piazza del Campo. As expected, all the accesses (it was gone 6 PM) were already closed. We heard that the last access to be open was Via Dupre’ and we headed there. Surprisingly, there was almost no queue and we were able to easily enter the access and in a matter of seconds we found ourselves right in Piazza del Campo with definitely a great view to take a couple of pictures!
We stayed a while in the square, enjoyed the historical parade and then, right before they closed the access at 6:45 PM, we sneaked out and headed to the contrada dell’Istrice, in a bar where we had booked a table to watch the Palio. We are still learning about Palio and having someone (in our case, the bar owner) explaining you what’s exactly going on is absolutely essential, otherwise you will probably miss the most of it. In this sense, hiring a guide for the Palio is definitely a great idea and highly recommended if you want to have some proper background and detailed notions on the Palio tradition.
As I said, the fact that la Lupa won caused a massive meltdown in the people of the Istrice contrada. In a matter of seconds, Via Camollia (the hearth of Istrice contrada) got exceptionally quiet and silent, and you could distinguish from afar a steady and almost compact flow of people coming up the street heading towards Porta Camollia. By that time we were standing outside the bar finishing our drinks and as soon as the Istrice contradaioli (all clearly recognizable by their scarf with the contrada colours) were coming closer it became obvious that a lot of them were in tears. I suppose we were not expecting anything like that and the bar owner must have seen our puzzled faces and promptly explained us that for the Istrice contrada it was an absolute travesty that their rival had won, not so much that they didn’t win the Palio.
Since I have been in Tuscany I have always liked people from Siena: from the experiences we had, they are generally very chilled out, relaxed and friendly with tourists/outsiders but the Palio definitely changes people and on Saturday in Siena there was a weird atmosphere: people were obviously getting ready for the big event with families and group of friends alike gathering in and around Piazza del Campo but throughout the day we approached 5/6 different groups of people and every time answers to our questions were very quickly dismissed and cut short or answered in bad manners. At a certain point, I had the feeling that tension was becoming almost rudeness (not all of the Senesi, but I am sure it was not a case).
With the end of the Palio days, it was absolutely clear one thing to me: the Palio belongs to Siena and the Senesi. That’s it. Of course you/we can attend the event and watch it, either in the square or paying hundreds of Euros to watch it more comfortably from a palco or balcony seat but at the end of the day that doesn’t mean anything: for us (not Senesi) Palio is a mere festival, a celebration. For them, it’s a completely different story: tradition, passion and pride.
Nevertheless, it has to be experienced, at least once in a lifetime.
Heading to Siena this summer? The Palio days will take place again from August 13th to August 16th (Palio race), with the same schedule. If you are visiting, have a look at my other post to find out the most interesting facts about the Palio and the trials.
Yesterday evening was my first time at Palio di Siena. For those not familiar with it, it’s one of the most spectacular events held in Italy, a bareback horse race around the main square of Siena (Piazza del Campo) held twice a year. Attending the trial races yesterday evening and this morning was an absolute amazing experience, even though I am still battling with the mixed feelings related to the fact of attending a horses race event on such a difficult and dangerous track, where undoubtedly horses will suffer and will get injured or worse. So far I have not seen such a thing happen so I have been comfortable in experiencing it but I suppose that the race itself is going to be a total different matter so, at least for now, I have decided to not attend it. It’s a tradition that has been alive for centuries, for which its people are extremely proud and passionate about and I had goosebumps myself from the very first moment I stepped in Piazza del Campo yesterday evening.
I didn’t know a lot about Palio before moving to Tuscany and I still have to learn plenty but what I have been learning in the last few weeks from Senesi (people from Siena) keeps fascinating me.
While tourists (including me) may get excited only for the 2 Palio dates (July 2nd and August 16th), for Senesi Palio is not only limited to these 2 days a year: as they like to say, Palio is 365 days a year.
A few interesting facts about Palio, that I recently learnt:
Palio is not limited to July 2nd and August 16th: in truth, it should be referred as Palio days since equally important are the 4 days preceding each Palio, busy with rituals and processions and the twice a day race trials (one in the morning and one in the evening). One of the most important moment for each contradaiolo is when the horses are assigned to each contrada by draw ( the so called “Tratta”), a moment that attracts thousands of people in Piazza del Campo. The starting positions are by draw as well.
There are 17 contrada in Siena but only 10 of them take part in each race. Each contrada has got a traditional rival and for each of them winning the Palio is as important as making sure that their rival contrada does not win it. Each contrada is considered a sort of individual small State, run by a Priore, a Capitano with the support of 2-3 contradaioli called “mangini”. Each contrada has its own church and their own headquarter where its flags, drapes, costumes and historical memories are kept.
Forget the fair play: Palio has been and will always be a game of power, plots, threats and bribes, as the Senesi themselves openly admit. Everything is allowed (including bribes and all sort of dirty play behind the scenes) and the only rule of the race is that the jockeys (fantini) can’t interfere with other jockey’s reins but everything else is allowed and should be expected.
It’s the horse that wins the Palio and gets all the honours and celebrations, not the jockey and the horse can win even without the jockey. From the moment jockeys are drawn, they can be changed up to the day before the Palio. The jockeys are paid and they are more a sort of mercenaries not emotionally attached to the contrada and open to bribes and corruption from rival contrada – no wonder why you hardly see them smiling during the trials! An extremely important figure, not to be confused with the jokey is the so called Barbaresco, the horse assistant that during the Palio days sleeps in the stable with the horse and never leaves his side.
The race itself on July 2nd starts at 7:45 PM and lasts just over 90 seconds. All the horses – except the horse drawn last – are kept in the so called “Mossa”, an area in the north-west corner of Piazza del Campo marked by two ropes where the horses are gathered. The race officially starts when the free horse charges the group between the two ropes.
Watching the Palio in Piazza del Campo is free. If you have got plenty of money to spend (I have been quoted Eur 450 for a seat on Saturday July 2nd) you can secure a place on one of the “palco” or balconies, definitely a more privileged position to experience the Palio but that will need more investment and undoubtedly more planning.
If you want to take some nice shots during the trial races (I can’t recommend about the Palio day itself since I have not experienced it), keep in mind that the morning trials (9 AM) are generally a lot quieter than the evening ones and you get more chances to secure a place in the front line without having to arrive in Piazza del Campo too early (I was there at 7.45 AM this morning and got a spot right next to the Mossa). If you want to get a good close up of the horses and the jockeys, position yourself near the Mossa where the horses start (keep in mind that where there is a double fence you might get some policemen or the square cleaners to partially obstruct your view).
If you want to get pictures of the horses entering the square, get down to where the Town Hall is, which is also a great spot if you want to have a longer view of the horses racing. This location can get a bit noisy 🙂 but extremely colourful since there are the stands where hundreds of little contradaioli (kids of all ages) wave and sing before and during the race.
After the trials, the horse is brought back to each contrada’s stable to get washed and rested, followed by the procession of its contradaioli.
Though you can’t get right up to the stable, follow them down the streets of Siena for some great people shots. Equally beautiful is just spending a couple of hours walking through the different contrada, picking up the colours and the symbols of each of them.
It’s official: I am in love with Siena each day more!