Siena is a lovely city rivaling Florence in its architecture and art; the divide being that Siena’s highpoint was the Medieval era and Florence’s, the Renaissance. Throughout much of Italy, some of the most spectacular traditions from these eras have endured through the centuries.
In July and August Siena provides one of the best: Il Palio. For two days – July 2 and August 16 – the central square of Siena, Piazza del Campo becomes a horse-racing track when packed dirt is laid around its edge. Riders from the ten districts (contrade) of Siena wear their traditional colors and compete for the Palio which is a silk banner (locally known affectionately as ‘the rag’). The race itself lasts about a minute as the ten riders race bareback three times around the piazza. It’s complete madness, a flurry of color, speed, noise, and danger. The piazza is packed with locals and tourists alike, all yelling, cheering and praying no-one falls. The race might seem quick, but the lead up is long and serious. There is a great deal of community pride invested in winning the Palio for your district and a great deal of preparation, scheming, betting and passion goes into the training.
In the few days before the race you might be lucky enough to see the riders practicing their dash around the track; this is grassroots horse-racing: no thoroughbreds allowed. And it’s not just a horse race. The July date is both the Feast of the Visitation and a local festival of the Madonna of Provenzano, and the August date is the day after the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Corteo Storico, a two hour pageant celebrating these important religious festivals, precedes the race on both days.