Palio

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The Palio horse race is run twice a year in the magnificent Piazza del Campo, Siena’s main square, widely considered to be one of the most beautiful squares in the world. The race, which is run on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August each year,dates back to the 14th century. In past times the races were on buffalo-back, but horses have been used in the “modern” Palio since 1656. The horses and jockeys represent  the 17 contrade (tiny districts) within the City walls. The narrow course around Piazza del Campo, which is covered with clay for each race, is not big enough to hold all 17 horses, so only ten race each Palio; the seven that did not compete the previous year and three others drawn by lot. It is still a squeeze, and there is lots of jostling and fighting between the jockeys – who ride bare-back – and the horses!

The festival of the Palio lasts for four days, and includes parades, flag-waving and tossing, blessings of the horses in the local churches, feasts in the contrade and six trial races. Not to mention lots of clandestine meetings between the heads of the contrade and the jockeys! The excitement builds to a crescendo on the day of the race; Siena is a sea of colour and a symphony of good-natured singing and chanting as the young members of the contrada wander around the city centre seeking to drown out their rivals – many eating delicious ice-cream as they sing!  Once the horses have been blessed by the Archbishop at the Cathedral the action is all in the Square itself, where the Corteo Storico (processions and parades around the square and a cavalry charge) lasts for three hours as the tension mounts. The race itself – three times round the square – passes in a 90-second flash of drumming hooves, colour and a wall of sound as the contradaioli urge their horses to victory.

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The Palio horse race takes its name from the Palio itself – the  huge hand-painted silk banner that is the prize for the winning contrada to keep forever. As the first horse whizzes past the finish post, youngsters from the winning contrada rush towards the Palio to claim it as their own. They and their parents, grandparents and little brothers and sisters then bear the Palio to their own contrada before returning with it to the square and proudly parading round and round in front of the customers of the bars and pizzerias who are enjoying their well-deserved post-Palio drinks and pizzas. Later the action moves back again to the winning contrada itself where visitors can expect to have beakers of Chianti thrust into their hands and to be hugged and quite possibly kissed too! The wine and song flow freely into the night.

You can live the Palio experience in many different ways during the 4-day festival. The only thing you really must do is to make sure you are at the race itself! The following section describes what you can do and see in the run-up to, and after, the race. These are the things that we think can help turn a wonderful experience into something truly unforgettable and help you not only to see but also to feel what the Palio means to we contradaioli!