One of Italy’s most spectacular and best known festivals, Il Palio is held twice yearly in Siena on 2 July and 16 August, to honour the Virgin Mary. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it features a series of colourful pageants, much eating, drinking and celebrating in the streets; and - most famously - a wild bareback horse race around Piazza del Campo.
One of Italy’s most
spectacular and best known festivals, Il Palio is
held twice yearly in Siena
on 2 July and 16 August, to honour the Virgin Mary. Dating back to the
Middle Ages, it features a series of colourful pageants, much eating, drinking
and celebrating in the streets; and - most famously - a wild bareback horse
race around Piazza del
Il Palio is one of very few surviving medieval spectacles of its type in
Italy, enduring thanks to the sheer tenacity of Sienese traditionalism. Most
other displays of medieval folk tradition were in fact brought back to life in
the 20th Century out of a combination of nostalgia and the urge to earn a few
more tourist bucks. Indeed, the Sienese place incredible demands on the
national TV network, RAI, for rights to televise their festival.
Ten of Siena’s 17 town districts, or contrade,
compete for the coveted palio,
a silk banner. Each has its own traditions, symbol and colours, as well as its
own church and palio museum. As you wander the streets, you will notice the
various flags and plaques delineating these quarters, each with a name and symbol
relating to an animal. On the downside, competition is so fierce that fistfights
sometimes break out between contrade, and Il Palio jockeys often live in fear
from rival contrade. Scheming rivals have been known to ambush jockeys and even
drug their horses.
On festival days, Piazza del Campo becomes a racetrack, with a ring of
packed dirt around its perimeter. From about 5 pm, representatives of each contrada parade in
historical costume, each bearing their individual banners.
The August edition of the race is run at 7 pm (the July race starts at
7:45 pm). For little more than one exhilarating minute, the 10 horses and their
bareback riders tear three times around Piazza del Campo with a speed and
violence that will make your hair stand on end. There is only one rule: riders
must not interfere with the reins of other horses. Even if a horse loses its
rider, it is still eligible to win and, since many riders fall each year, it is
the horses who are the event’s main attraction.
Keen to experience the drama and chaos of Il Palio at close range? It is
advisable to book well in advance for a room, and to join the crowds in the
centre of Piazza del Campo at least four hours before the start for a good
view. Surrounding streets are closed off well before the race begins, except
for Via Giovanni Dupré, which stays open right up until the flag drops. If you
arrive late you can try your luck reaching the Piazza via this street – but do
not count on it, as everyone else has the same idea. If you prefer a more
comfortable seat overlooking the race from one of the buildings lining the
piazza, ask in the local cafés and shops. They are rare, but if you do manage
to find one, expect to pay around 220 euros for the privilege. If you cannot
find a good vantage point, do not despair – the race televised live and it is
repeated throughout the evening on TV.
If you happen to be in town in the few days immediately preceding the
race, you may get to see the jockeys and horses trying out in Piazza del Campo
– almost as good as the real thing. Between May and October, Cinema Moderno (Piazza
Tolomei; 0577 28 92 01) runs a mini-epic 20-minute film of Siena and Il Palio
that will take your breath away.
The article 'Tuscany's medieval-style festival' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.