Horsing Around in Tights: The Palio Part 2 – OurWarwick

Horsing Around in Tights: The Palio Part 2

Having eaten my fair share in pasta, risotto and delicious custard tarts (and even stealing a box of 30 to take home as snacks for the day ahead), my first contrada dinner was finished, and it was time to head home and prepare for Palio next day.

But not before a quick photo shoot with our stolen produce in our beloved Piazza

I’d like to say I slept in and enjoyed an easy morning before the chaos of the Palio engulfed me, but in truth, I was woken by the drums. Ah the drums, my nemesis in life. You see, just before the Palio horserace, there is the two-hour parade of each contrada, featuring flag throwing, medieval costumes (think velvet, tights and wigs in 35-degree weather) and of course, drums… Which means they have been practising since I arrived in January, every day, beating out the same rhythm. I would also like to say that since the Palio finished last Tuesday we have had a break from the incessant drumming, but alas, August is fast approaching. There is actually a prize for best flag throwing/ drumming in the parade, so you see why practice is important. There is also a prize for “most elegant performance” during the Palio because, after all, this is Italy.

So, awoken by the drums, and also the canons being fired for the final test run, it was time to Palio. First stop of the day (in between our checks of the Piazza il Campo to see how busy it was getting) was to the Onda church to see the horse be blessed by the priest before the race. Which, I actually never got to see, because in true Italian fashion, it started 30 minutes late, which was already too late for me,  having stood waiting in the midday sun for 20 minutes. 

However, by that time the campo was getting pretty full, and it was my turn to relieve my friends already waiting there to secure us a good space. At this point, I will point out, it was 3pm, and the crowds were already pretty impressive…

If only we could afford a balcony…

And so the waiting began. I will say this, even though the blessing was slightly delayed when it comes to the main thing, the Italians are certainly on time. From 5:30 the square was closed off, meaning no more toilet breaks for anyone, and a whole lot of medics having to push through the crowds with stretchers when someone fainted… which happened way too many times…

The parade!

I’ll be honest, the flag throwing was indeed very impressive, and the costumes and hats certainly made quite the spectacle. But it lasted two hours… Which meant that the reality of the wonderful group photo I put in part 1 of this blog, actually looked a lot more like this…

I tried my best

Taking it in shifts to sit down and fan each other, we made it through, sort of smiling, to the end of the parade, where the infamous bulls pull the carriage, and the Palio banner is waved…

Sadly you cannot see it here, but the Palio banner is a banner that features Jesus and the Madonna and is the only prize the contrade win. Yes. A banner. And of course, pride. 

Thankfully, the parade finally ended, and it was time for the jockies to line up. Which is another saga… A lottery decides what order the horses line up in to start the race; the first positions are naturally the best because they are the inside line. However, the horse in last place has a unique role, as he stands around two metres behind the other jockies, and he decides when the race starts- when the “run in jockey” goes, everyone goes.

Which leads to the chaos. Jockies are allocated funds from their contrada to bribe the run-in jockey, and therefore, in front of everyone, the negotiations begin.  The run-in jockey will only begin when his friends (or those who have paid the most) are ready, and his enemies are facing the wrong way. If the jockey feels he still needs to make a deal, he will continue to mess around the start line, hitting other jockeys and horses, until he is ready. Unfortunately for the spectators, this usually means starting the Palio can take up to half an hour, and given we also endured a false start, ours took 40 minutes.  

Oh hey Aquila

And then they were off, after months and months of preparation, the race was finally over in 80 seconds. We actually were lucky enough to have a very clean Palio, as no riders or horses fell, and everyone crossed the finish line. *This is spectacularly rare, given the only rule within the race is that a jockey cannot touch to the reins of another jockey- everything else is acceptable, kicking, punching, you name it.* Compared to the last Palio, which is certainly worth watching, it was a walk in the park.

However, it was quite exciting, because even though my district, Onda, did pretty poorly, the winner was Giraffa, who was the contrada I visited for dinner the night before. And they haven’t stopped celebrating since…

We did it!

The Palio was certainly an experience, but I am not sure I would do it ever again. Whilst it is an incredible, spectacular event, and the dedication of the Sienese is incomparable, the event itself is rather violent, and sadly, dedication can often become aggressive. The contrade themselves are a mans world, something that is understood pretty quickly when you enter the Campo on the day, and the stands are 90% covered by the men of each district, with the women crammed into 1. However, the element of tradition that the Palio brings to Siena certainly adds a unique flavour to the city, and it is truly at the heart of somewhere I am happy that I have called home for six months…

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