In the gorgeously preserved Tuscan hill town of Siena, Italy, the Middle Ages seem to survive in the architecture and in the civic spirit. The city is known both for its pride and for its independent attitude. And twice a year, that spirit shows itself in a crazy horse race, as it has for five centuries.
That world-famous race, the Palio di Siena, takes place twice every summer — on July 2 and August 16 — and the city's people hurl themselves into the traditional revelry of the event with abandon.
As my friend Roberto explained when I visited to see last year's race, "For the Sienese, you're born…there's the Palio…and then you can die."
Siena is divided into 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, 10 of which vie for the coveted Palio banner — and all-important bragging rights. Each competing contrada gets its horse through a lottery and then showers it with love, washing and grooming it in a stable that's more like a five-star hotel. Contrade — each with its own parish church, fountain, and square — are filled with rivalries. Each contrada is represented by a mascot (porcupine, unicorn, she-wolf, and so on) and a distinctive flag — colors worn and flown all year long, but omnipresent as the race nears.
While the race itself lasts just 90 seconds, festivities go on for days. As Palio day approaches, processions break out across the city, including one in which the famed and treasured banner — featuring the Virgin Mary, to whom the race is dedicated — is held high as it is paraded to the cathedral. Locals belt out passionate good-luck choruses. With the waving flags and pounding drums, it all harkens back to medieval times, when these rituals boosted morale before battle.
The day before the race I joined a crowd in the main square, Il Campo, to see the jockeys — mostly hired hands from out of town — get to know their horses in a practice run called the "charge of the carabinieri." At midnight that night, the streets were filled with eating, drinking, singing, and camaraderie, as neighborhoods gathered to pump each other up.
On race day, bets are placed on which contrada will win...and lose. Despite the shady behind-the-scenes dealing, the horses are taken into their contrada's church to be blessed. ("Go and return victorious," says the priest.) It's considered a sign of luck if a horse leaves droppings in the church. In Il Campo, dirt is brought in and packed down to create the track's surface, while mattresses pad the walls of surrounding buildings. The most treacherous spots are the sharp corners, where many a rider has bitten the dust.
The entire city of Siena packs into Il Campo. Bleacher and balcony seats are expensive, but it's free to join the masses in the square. Those who are well-connected get to watch from the comfort of an apartment window. Roberto's friend, Franco, shared his apartment overlooking the race course…and we enjoyed the best seats in town. From this vantage point, we watched as the square filled, with pageantry unfolding, flags waving, and excitement building.
Finally, it was time. A cart pulled by oxen carried the Palio banner into the arena and the crowd went wild. As the starting places were announced, 10 snorting horses and their nervous riders lined up to await the start. Silence took over. And then…
The race! Once the rope drops, there's one basic rule: There are no rules. The jockeys race bareback like crazy while spectators go berserk. In Siena, life stops for these frantic three laps. Up in the apartment, Roberto and Franco held their breath. And then, the winner: Lupa, the she-wolf district.
We zipped out into the street to join the ecstatic mobs coursing toward the cathedral. The happy "Lupa-Lupa-Lupa!" horde thundered through town, weeping with joy. At the cathedral, the crowd packed in, and the winning contrada received the beloved banner — champions…until the next race.
The most recent race I witnessed, in August 2016, was historic: For the first time in over a century, the same contrada won both the July and the August races (and Lupa had gone 27 years without a win). Seeing euphoria overcome members of the winning contrada reminded me that it's impossible for a tourist to really understand what this ritual race means to the people of Siena.
Carrying their new trophy and hoisting their jockey high, the Lupa contingent tumbled out of the cathedral and back out into the streets of Siena, where the celebration would continue until the wee hours — 500 years of tradition, still going strong.