The Palio, Siena
The Palio horse race in Siena, which takes place twice a year on July 2nd and August 16th, is one of the most colourful and historic events in Italy, dating back to 1281.
The bareback race attracts a huge crowd to the magnificent Piazza del Campo in the centre of the city and consists of over an hour of colourful pageantry and costumed processions as well as the race itself, which is over relatively quickly. The race is between 10 of the city’s “contrade” or districts with each contrade having its own racing colours. Only 10 out of 17 contrade participate in the race due to space restrictions.
If you ever attend the Palio you'll never forget the excitement of the night before the race. The streets are bathed with soft golden light from hundreds of torches and lanterns. Groups of noisy Geese, Panthers and Tortoises flock by on their way to dinner for thousands: each contrada lays out rows and rows of 50-foot-long tables in its largest square, and local restaurateurs serve up huge bowls of pasta, gigantic platters of meat and vegetables. Approximately 25,000 Sienese will eat in the streets that night - so close and yet so far away from each other.
On the day of the race, the church bell in the Mangio Tower sounds at 8am, as jockeys attend Mass with the Archbishop of Siena. Later the horses will be blessed in their contrade too. It is a great honour for the jockey to wear the colours of his contrade, but it is the horse that is the real star – unlike other horse races, the horse can even win without a jockey. The prize for the winner is ‘il Palio’, a secretly created silk banner.