If you’ve seen 007’s escapades in the Quantum Of Solace, you should be familiar with the crowds in Piazza del Campo, Siena for the twice yearly horse race of the contrade.
What are the contrade? They are the districts of Siena. You can see their flags displayed here:
There are seveteen contrades in all, but only ten race on the day.
On a day trip from Florence to see the July Palio, I ventured with a newly made friend from my hostel. We headed to the Piazza del Campo to see what was going on.
Not much was happening yet, but eager folks had already staked their place for the best view. So, we went for some beer and lunch in a small cafe which turned out to be in the ‘Owl’ district.
Being one of those days where things just work out, the cafe/bar owner’s wife happened to be a Scottish lecturer now working in the university of Siena. She explained how the owl district were not taking part in the race as their horse was injured. Jockey’s can be easily replaced, but not the horses.
So the feeling in that part of town was pretty low, as they still had to take part in the build-up knowing they had zero chance (they won the next one that year though). Also of interest were the substances consumed by the horses to make them race better … up to the eyeballs, as they say.
So each district starts their procession in their area, moving towards the town centre.
The atmosphere is one of high excitement, locals supporting their contrade cheering and clapping.
The processions and districts start moving towards the Piazza Del Campo for the race, which is starting to fill up a little.
We stake out a spot near the ‘dangerous’ corner, nowadays covered in padding, as the people start to file in. Handy hint: you’ll be in the middle for a few hours, don’t down bottles of water or beer. We got some wine watching everything unfold – it is Italy and we are in Tuscany … not that I need much encouragement when it comes to vino rosso.
The Piazza now full, there’s no getting in or out as the pre-race pageant begins.
Highly decorated horses, cows and people … it’s not a short parade.
Flag throwing from one person to another, high in the air, is a risky business.
Then you have flag bearers from each contrade lining up and you know the race is getting closer.
Dum dum duuuuuuuuuuum! It’s time for the horses and their jockeys.
The people are cheering and clapping and you just get swept away with the contagious atmosphere. The race took FOREVER to start as one horse refused to line up – up to the eyeballs, possibly. Getting restless, the people cheered loudly when the horse approached the start line, then quietened down when it moved away, cheered again, quietened down, cheered again and quietened down. Then bang – the race starts.
This is the race I watched in July, 2009 (minus the owls so there were only nine participants). It was quite uneventful in terms of everyone finishing atop their horses. But you can see the padding on the ‘dangerous’ corner and the horse refusing to line up (scroll down for more videos).
And this is the winner (I’m blaming the blurryness on the wine).
The Tartuca contrade won (Tortoise District) – don’t know where the hare went … boom boom?
Following the win, the jockey is the ultimate hero (doesn’t get paid much by the way, it’s all about the honour). And people went crazy. The horse and jockey left the Piazza and headed to an area outside the piazza followed by hundreds of cheering, shouting people. So we leapt (well, I fell – always classey) over the barrier and followed them.
It made me wish I was an Italian living in the tortoise district of Siena.
All hail the winner.
An amazing build-up and race, with an electric atmosphere. A definite to see and do.
Seeing a few others from the hostel, we stayed in Siena eating and drinking til the first train back the next day to Florence.
When visited: July (another race is in August)
Weather: sunny and warm
Also check out: http://justvisitsiena.com/palio/ for more detailed information.
A more typical race would be horses finishing without their jockeys:
And this one, whilst a slow start, shows how high passions run from 4.00 minutes onwards. Montagues and Capulets …