In the heart of Tuscany, Siena is located just over an hour away from the city of Florence. Traditionally there has been a lot of rivalry between the two cities after centuries of warring, takeovers and political conflict. These days however the only real battles between Florence and Siena take place on the football field when their teams compete!
That is not to say that some rivalry does not still exist in the hearts of the locals.
‘The Tuscans are, in so many ways, like the cities they inhabit?from another time, characters etched in historical settings: ? the woman in Siena who told me she was a lifelong resident of the small city, with a population of 50,000 divided into 17 sections, each area designated by a multi-colored medieval flag. “I worry my daughter will meet and fall in love with someone from another section of the city, someone whose flag would be different from our own,” she told me as we stood in the center of the square where the legendary Palio is staged. “My family and I would need to give that quite a bit of thought before we allowed such a marriage to go forward.”
“There are worse things than to fall in love with someone from your own town,” I said, not sure if she was serious or jesting.
“That’s true,” she said with a stern nod of her head. “He could be from Florence.”
Now I knew there was no humor in her concern: Florence and Siena have been bitter enemies ever since the first city defeated the second in battle. The fact that this occurred in 1500 does not lessen the rivalry.’
The Palio is held twice a year in the famous Piazza del Campo, the central shell-shaped piazza of Siena.
In the centre of the piazza lies the Fonte Gaia (fountain), whilst the edge of the piazza is made up of a variety of bars, restaurants and gelato stores. It is a gathering place where locals meet to enjoy a coffee, a meal, a pre-dinner drink, or just to sit and chat seated in the sloping square.
Sitting at the base of the Piazza del Campo is Siena’s town hall, the Palazzo Comunale, out from which shoots the bell tower (Torre del Mangia) that grants those who manage to work their way up the winding stairwell with the most spectacular views over Tuscany.
Twice a year though, in June and again in August, the Piazza del Campo is transformed for the Palio. In fact, the whole of the city changes into its best garb in preparation for this spectacular event that dates back to medieval times.
Prior to the race itself, there are flag-throwing parades comprised of locals dressed in medieval costume, flags are hung from windows, the piazza is filled with a thick layer of dirt to create the track.
Seating is set up around the outskirts of the Piazza on the buildings, with those lucky enough to have balconies being all set up to watch the spectacle from a wonderful vantage point!
Each of the 17 sections, or rather, ‘contrade’ is represented by its own distinct flag, and each Sienese local is fiercely loyal to his or own contrada into which they are born.
Only 10 contrade can participate in each Palio race at a time, a decree imposed in the late 1700s for safety reasons. Despite this safety concern, it is still not unusual for horses to complete the 70-90 second, 3 lap race sans jockey who has been left behind somewhere along the dirt track!
The seven contrade who miss out one year are automatically included in the following year’s race, with a draw held to determine who the other three will be.
Having to ride bareback around a sloping piazza amid crowds of thousands squeezed around the track, wearing medieval costume, it is no easy race to complete, and the best Palio riders are elevated to celebrity status in Siena.
As with most medieval traditions, there are also some weird and wonderful elements to the Palio. For instance, the contrade cannot use thoroughbred horses.
The riders are allowed to use their whips not only on their own horse, but to disturb the other competing horses! What’s more, the riders are permitted to do everything they can to stop their rivals from winning.
The aim of the race is not only to win but to ensure that your most rival contrada does not win. To this end, there are many secret meetings and deals that are made before the race. Strict measures have also been put into place to ensure that the horses and riders are not tampered with.
The horse does not need to have its jockey still on board to win, and coming last is not as bad as coming in second ? the real loser position of the race!
Overall however, visiting Siena during the Palio is to experience an ancient tradition in a medieval city. It is to be involved in history, to enjoy a traditional Tuscan spectacle like no other, a tradition that remains virtually unchanged like the stunning Tuscan countryside that surrounds the medieval walls of this charming Tuscan hilltop town.
For the July 2nd race in 2011, the small group on our Best of Tuscany tour were lucky enough to experience the excitement of the Palio as part of their day tour to Tuscany and have captured some photos for you.
The Best of Tuscany tour is also part of our Grand Italy Tour discounted tour package. Great discounts on this tour are also offered to those booking our Grand Italy greatly discounted package covering tours in Florence, Venice and Rome guided tours.