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So what is Il Palio? In short, it is a medieval horse race that has been taking place since the 15th century.
However, a more thorough explanation is warranted. Filled with tradition, pride and energetic spirit, the Palio that began hundreds of years ago, still lives on today.
Siena is comprised of 17 neighborhoods each with it’s own parish or church, mascot, colors, and special banners and flags to match. During the Palio, only 10 of the 17 neighborhoods compete in the festivities, which are chosen by rotation.
Three days before the Palio begins, there is a drawing and each contrada is assigned a horse by lottery. They say lady luck has her hand in these festivities! Once the horse is assigned, strategies can be implemented by each contrada, and the trials can begin. There are a total of six trials run, including on the morning of the Palio.
Set to begin at 7:45 pm, people arrive to the piazza very early so that they can get a prime viewing spot of the race. The best spots are of course along the railing that circles around the track. However, within the piazza itself, there are higher level standing areas making it easy to see over people if you do not get a prime viewing spot. Astonishingly, around 60,000 people flock to the piazza to watch the Palio.
One thing to note is there are no bathrooms inside the piazza, so this makes standing in the hot sun without water a difficult task. You are able to arrive to the piazza as late as 6:30, which is when they close the last entrance to the piazza. However, it is best to arrive around 5:30 so not to get stuck in a long line outside of the piazza waiting to get in.
As a prelude to the race, about an hour prior, with mounting anxiety, there is a parade of the “contrade” around il campo. All 17 contradas participate in this procession around the track. Men are dressed in midieval costume, beating drums play, and trumpets sing as each contrada waltzes around displaying their colors and pride.
Finally, after all have proceeded, the entire piazza goes silent. In one last moment before the race begins, each contrada participates in a flag throwing ceremony, known as, “gioco delle bandiere.” After the flags are thrown high into the air and caught before hitting the ground, the horses appear and the process to line them up begins. Sometimes, the race can be delayed up to one hour as the horses need to be reorganized again and again.
Without further adieu, the race begins. A feverish, tornado of horses speed at unbelievable rates around il campo, three times. The race itself lasts just over a minute and then it is done. But the festivities continue on, as the contrade spill into the streets to celebrate.
The winning contrada receives a palio (banner) which is painted by a local artist and features the Virgin Mary, and their contrada flag is displayed throughout town. However, the true prize is the ability to claim bragging rights over all the other contradas.
Have you ever been to a medieval event in Italy? What is your favorite event?
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