Horsing Around in Tights: The Palio Part 1
The countdown is truly on! Within a week, I will have finished my semester in Italy be home in the UK, with just my suitcase and endless Erasmus paperwork to remind me of it all. And all the friendships and precious memories, of course… This semester seems to have flown by, particularly these last few weeks, which has been a mad whirlwind of revision and exams, leaving parties and, of course, the heat wave, which saw Siena hitting temperatures of 39 degrees for a week straight. And so, what better way to celebrate cripplingly hot weather, than to spend 5 hours standing in a square, watching men in medieval costumes throw flags and ride horses?? Yes! You guessed correctly, it was Palio season in Siena, and let me tell you, it was quite the experience.
I can guarantee that we were not smiling like this most of the time
Regular “fans” of this blog will already know a bit about Palio, as I have discussed aspects of it before, but let me give you a run down. Siena is divided into 17 districts, called contrade, which have their own name, symbol, church, fountain, colours, and traditions. Every year on the 2nd of July, and the 16th of August, 10 of these contrade partake in what has been described as “the craziest horse race on earth,” something I had the pleasure of witnessing last week Tuesday.
The first thing to understand, for the population of Siena, the Palio is actually their life; they seriously care about winning it, and will happily spend millions of pounds each year in order to try and be the champions, or ensure that their enemy will lose. I honestly cannot describe it to people who haven’t lived here, but it is impossible to overstate how important this event is. I mean, they go through twice a year?
Depending on which contrade ran last year, there are 7 contrade automatically selected for each Palio, to ensure that everyone gets a regular go at it. The remaining three spots are decided by a lottery, almost 6 weeks before. Luckily for me, my contrada, Onda (wave) will run both times this year.
Mr number 13, waiting to be assigned
Then around a week before the Palio, 75 horses are brought to our historic city, to run around our main square, and site of the race, the Piazza il Campo, so that the authorities and captains of each contrade can slowly reduce them down to 10 equal (ish) possibilities for the race. The next day, in a very long and ritual-heavy lottery, where each running contrade is assigned a horse, which can make or break a Palio. I said they were equal (ish) possibilities because naturally, some horses will have a record of winning many races, others not. However, when Onda were assigned there horse, I was a bit surprised to see quite a few 70+ year old men burst into tears at the horse we were given- I told you they take it seriously.
Next up: jockies. This is a touchy subject in Siena, because the majority of the jockies come from outside Siena, and are not loyal to a specific contrada. Once the horses have been assigned, each contrada will assess their chances of winning, and then decide if it’s worth pursuing a very good (and extremely expensive) jockey in order to try and win, or perhaps to acquire a particularly skilful jockey to try and sabotage your enemy. However, the jockies have a history of taking bribes from other contrade, meaning they are often referred to as the dieci assassini, or 10 assassins.
The jockey of Torre
Nevertheless, at this point, every participating contrade has a horse and a (if slighly corrupt) jockey, meaning it is time for the prove, or trials. I won’t lie to you, this didn’t really make sense to me. You would think that given they run this horse race twice a year, and have done so for over 400 years, they would have the format down. However, with each Palio, there are 6 prove, every morning and evening for 3 days before the actual race, where the whole of Siena arrive in the campo to watch the horses assemble on the start line, and then gently trot around the course (for fear of damaging their horse before the actual thing, because once your horse is injured, you’re out).
Yes, the whole of Siena
So you can understand how, by the day before the Palio, I was feeling a little done with the whole thing. I just do not understand how the Sienese can muster up the enthusiasm for the whole thing every year, twice.
However, the night before the Palio did bring something very special: thanks to my wonderful Italian tandem partner, my friends and I were able to get tickets to the contrada of Giraffa’s dinner, which is an evening of wine, 5 courses of delicious food, and many songs before the Palio the next day. Oh, and did I mention that it happens in a square with a view of a beautiful church?
There is even a Giraffa anthem…
It was certainly a night to remember, even if I think half of the Sienese probably will not be able to thanks to the wine…