The Race That Stops A City

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August 18th 2006
Published: August 20th 2006EDIT THIS ENTRY

Il Palio di SienaIl Palio di SienaIl Palio di Siena

These horses tear around like lightning. This is my best photo; in all my others the horses are just a blur!
Il Palio di Siena

Every year I watch the Melbourne Cup; the Race That Stops A Nation. A day filled with excitement, fun and tension and many emotions run high. This year I watched Il Palio di Siena, and I just forgot about the Melbourne Cup. I've seen madness before; drunken madness at Vappu, sportsteam madness at the World Cup, music madness at Rock Werchter, adrenalin-survival-mode madness at the Running of the Bulls; but never before have I seen madness erupt just by waiting for a 1 minute horse race. The Melbourne Cup horse race just does not compare at all. In the end, that's all the Palio is; a simple horse race that ends in the blink of an eye. Yet this town treats it as life and death. The passion is astounding, the tension unbearable, the excitement addictive, the colour fantastic, the atmosphere memorable. And that is why this, along with Running of the Bulls, is a European festival not to be missed. I was also in Palermo for 2 days; but no one cares.

To understand my perspective of the Palio I'll first describe what it is all about, as without this knowledge you'll have no idea how it relates. The Palio is a 4-day festival held twice a year (each race being unrelated to the other) between the 17 contradas of Siena. The first 3 days are all trials to select the horses for the final race on the last day. In each race only 10 of the contradas participate as 17 horses cannot run in the Piazza del Campo at the same time. The Piazza is the town square; yes, the race is run in the town square where a track is made. It sounds kind of simple, but what makes the Palio special is the relationship between the contradas. The contradas are self-governing areas of Siena that together work to meet the needs of Siena as a whole; kind of like suburbs. Except the contradas effectively hate each other. A contrada is in theory an enemy of everybody, but some can be neutral, and some contradas are such rivals that they are actually officially stated enemies. Yet the contradas have a strange equilibrium in that even though they are passionate rivals, they all work together to ensure the city runs effectively.

That is why the Palio is so important. Since Medieval times
The EmotionThe EmotionThe Emotion

Just look at the passion on their faces! All the horse is doing is quietly going to the starting line. The hype was awesome.
it is one of two times in the year when all the passion and tension between the contradas builds up into its madness-filled climax of the Palio. The whole year revolves around the Palio, and to win is the prize. But the mere defeat of a vanquished foe is regarded as the equivalent of a win. Winning is not everything. Rivalry is everything, and if you a beat a rival then that is cause for as big a celebration as winning is. The contradas do everything they can to win, or everything they can to defeat a rival; it depends on its goals. Throughout the years this apprarently includes such extreme acts as sabotage and poisoning. A frequent method is bribes; money exchanges hands and deals are made all during the lead up to the Palio, even between the jockeys just before the race starts. Apparently in the July Palio a contrada was leading the race by about 3 to 4 lengths, and just before the finish line the jockey pulled back the horse, trotted along as most of the other horses charged past to beat him. Indian bookies would have a field day here. They'll forget about cricket. In
Il BrucoIl BrucoIl Bruco

The flag waver for Il Bruco. Go you good thing! Go take those bribes! They certainly did, as they finished 2nd last.
any other sport this would be frowned on, but the Palio is not your normal race. The outcome of the Palio is life and death to the inhabitants of Siena, and their passion for their contrada is unmatched. And you know how passionate Italians are about anything. Multiply this by infinite amounts and you have the Siena contrada's level of passion.

So you now know what it is in general. But it is not just a race but a whole Medieval festival; so this combination of uniqueness and madness is what attracted me here. As I was in Tunisia, I was not able to make it to Siena in time for the whole festival, but only the last days. So I missed some of the first trials, but this is not entirely bad as the last day is the most important. Being the unplanned and unorganised traveller that I am, I booked accommodation 4 days before (an incredibly useless thing to do for the Palio as all of Siena is booked out months in advance). My accommodation was in a perfect guesthouse in the small town of Certaldo, 30min away by train, so I had to commute between the
The DuomoThe DuomoThe Duomo

The inside of the main cathedral is adorned with the flags of all the contradas on the final day of the festival. It looks pretty impressive!
towns for the festival. I arrived in Siena in time for the "dress rehearsal" trial run in the evening of the 3rd day. It is called the dress rehearsal as its outcome is irrelevant as the horses for the next day's Palio are already chosen. With Siena's beautiful architecture, windy, cobble-stone streets decorated with that contrada's flag, I couldn't help but feel that I was in Medieval Italy. Every 10min I would stumble on a parade of contrada members making their way to the Piazza. First the actual horse running in the imminent trial is led in front of the parade like a trophy or a sacrifice, followed by the jockey (who is treated and dressed like a nobleman of worthy honour) and the head members of the contrada (who look like Mafia godfathers). Following this lead pack are the hundreds of contrada members; men and women, old and young, dressed in their official colours, draped in the scarfs of their contrada, singing at the top of voice and in perfect unison the song of their contrada. The entire streets stop at a standstill and make way for the parade.

I steadily followed these parades into the Piazza; and
Piazza del Campo Piazza del Campo Piazza del Campo

This is only one half of the Piazza, double it to see how many people are packed in this place! And what a nice Piazza it is too...
what a sight it was! A gigantic town square in the shape of a shell, surrounded on all sides by tall, impressive, classically architectured and elegant buildings, royal-looking banners and contrada flags adorning the walls, a 5-tier stand surrounding the yellow track filled with people, and the centre area filled to the brim with tourists and Siennese alike. Thousands of people had filled the Piazza centre, eagerly awaiting the trial. Eventually the trial started, and the race was pretty cool but it only requires a mere mention; for in essence everything is about the next day. After this trial, each contrada throws a massive dinner in the streets of their contrada. Long tables are served with exquisite meals, but these are only for contrada members so I did not particpate (I also had to get back to Certaldo).

The next day (the 4th and final day of the festival) I arrived in Siena early. I met up with a group of 6 Canadians and hung out with them for a couple of hrs around Siena. The streets were alive with people, mainly tourists, as the Sienese are all in the church of their contrada for a special service where
Piazza del CampoPiazza del CampoPiazza del Campo

The other half
the jockey and horse are blessed and effectively told to win (yes, the horse goes in the church... this is not a normal town). I arrived in the Piazza at 230 and got a good spot right near the fence. I met quite a few people there and the waiting wasn't too bad. Rockets exploded at seemingly random moments and stopped my heart every time. At about 430 the first of the 3 main highlights of the festival commenced; the Historical Parade. The parade is a magnificent thing to see, full of beauty, costume and colour. First a Medieval band completes a circuit around the Piazza. Each contrada is represented by a group of people dressed in Medieval costumes displaying the colours and emblems of the contrada. At the front are 2 almost jester-like members selected as the flag bearers. They jovially and proudly wave large flags of their contrada dressed in excellent and brightly coloured costumes and hats. Displaying a unique skill, at select intervals they perform tricks with the flags. It certainly looks fantastic to see a colourful person throw a colouful flag into the sky, where it hovers for a brief second, and then lands back perfectly into the thrower's or his partner's hand. All contradas perform this trick but also do some of their own. One pair did this trick where they jumped over the pole and in mid air throw the flag to their partner. The parade went for too long though, as each of the 10 contradas had to do the same thing.

And after this is where the real fun begins; the madness. What I identify as the 2nd main highlight, the final race, was about to begin. By this time everyone was packed like sardines in the Piazza, and it was chaotic. Groups of contrada members were scattered throughout the centre, and tension was high. Contrada groups would burst out into song every 10min, proudly singing the same song repeatedly, to the content listening of tourists and "friend" contradas, but to the hateful booing and jeering by enemy contradas. Flags and scarfs of different patterns and colours were being waved everywhere. Soon it was finally time for the horses to enter the Piazza and this was immediately followed by a volcanic eruption of insanity. Suddenly people all around started jumping up and down, shoving, screaming, shouting, cheering, jeering, singing, waving. Hell had broken loose. Nothing had even happened yet. The horses had merely entered the square, they were not doing a circuit of the track, they were not doing anything but slowly and innocently trotting to the starting line. Right in front of me on the other side of the track housed a stand full of those who were in the parade; some of the most loyal of each the contrada. As the horses passed, these members just lost all emotional control as they passionatley screamed at their jockey and horse to win. It was like before a war. But this insanity was only equalled by the dead chilling silence that followed as the horses approached the starting line. After minutes that seemed like hours of endless screaming, the entire Piazza went quiet. The noise makes the horses nervous, so everybody goes quiet. The horses have to line up in a correct order, and the race cannot start till the horses and steady and in this order. The order is quite difficult to achieve. An announcer would call up each horse, and if he was not happy that everything was in order, he would tell the horses to start again. Literally,
Flag ThrowingFlag ThrowingFlag Throwing

Some of the flags go much higher than this! Pretty cool.
this went on for about 40min. 40min of waiting for the race to begin. Now think about the loyal contrada members; the suspense kills them. The Siennese just cannot take it emotionally; they bite their nails, fold their arms, look in the other direction, dance about irratatedly, run their hands through their hair and put their hands behind their head. Whenver the announcer would say that they have to start again, the whole Piazza moans and groans, shouts and screams. Once there was a false start, and one jockey fell off his horse and got hurt. The nearby stands erupted in happiness and cheering. The mentality was "One down, only 8 more to go". War; there is no mercy. Silence again followed as the horses start again. Tension builds, excitement rings in the air. Everybody is truly captivated by the mere waiting for the race. The atmosphere is addictive. Even I, with no loyalty to any contrada and no passion for anything related, could not help but feel my heart on the brink of stopping as I eagerly and impatiently awaited the start. Who knew that simply standing still could be so exhilirating! You just feel part of the race. The Siennese go crazy and simultaneously quiet. And then without any warning, it began. The beginning of the race was accompanied by a symphony orchestra of screaming and madness as the emotion grips each contrada by the scruff of the neck and chokes them. The Piazza went wild with passion. The horses tear around the circuit at breakneck speed. You stand in the Piazza constantly turning around as you watch the horses circle the track amidst all the cheering and yelling. It's amazing how fast they really are; like brown lightning. And then 1min and 20sec later the race finishes. But the thrill was long from gone. The "Selva" contrada won (the rhinoceros and 2 trees). And you thought people went mad after their horse won Melbourne Cup. THINK. AGAIN. Pure chaos erupted as the stands were emptied in seconds as the contrada members rushed onto the track, waving their hands and chasing the horses to celebrate/mourn with their contrada. There was screaming, shoving, pushing and people jumping over fences. Little girls cried, grown men bawled, shouting was exchanged and numerous fights broke out. Back in Certaldo my roommate told me this extraordinary story, which may or may not be
The Emotion (2)The Emotion (2)The Emotion (2)

Their faces were about to burst. Captivating stuff, really.
true, but is one I can certainly believe happened given the sheer emotion in the air. From one of the balconies around the Piazza someone threw a seat/cushion down onto opposing contrada members in the stands for no reason after the race, probably in annoyance and frustration. The people below lost control. A big fat guy tried to climb a flag to get onto the balcony to confront him. As he was too fat, he fell right back down. But time and failure did not bring calmness. A young, agile and athletic guy then leaped onto the flag, climbed it like a monkey, appeared on the balcony, grabbed this guy by the hair and started punching him in the head. Siena had gone crazy. Selva members were hugging, crying, singing and waving flags. The jockey was raised on the shoulders of his fellow comrades. They emptied onto the streets running to their contrada area to soon begin the crazy celebrations which were to last well into the night.

And unfortunately that was all I saw. After the race the jockey and horse go to the winning contrada's church where they are blessed. The contrada then throws a massive party
Random Horse ProcessionRandom Horse ProcessionRandom Horse Procession

These horse riders were awesome, but pretty random. They just come in, do one slow, calm lap of the track... then suddenly, for no apparent reason, just begin to absolutley cane it around the track at lightning speed! Then they just go away as if nothing happened...
in their streets. Apparently free beer and free wine flows like a river to anyone willing to celebrate with them. Oh, how disappointed I was to miss this of all parties. From what I hear, the post-race celebration is one of the best parts of the festival. But as my accommodation was in another town, I had to get the last train there at 920; effectively missing out everything. My lack of foresight has now affected me twice. During San Fermin we didn't book any accommodation and slept in the park. We couldn't party as we had to look after our stuff. During Il Palio I booked accommodation, but as it was so far out from Siena I still couldn't party. Next time: plan ahead for festivals! But still, being witness to the race and atmosphere was a memorable experience. The atmosphere here at the Palio was thrilling; far better than San Fermin. And with the party at the end I'm sure this would be an awesome experience. The only thing that made Running of the Bulls better was the fact that I actually Ran with the Bulls. And you can't beat that! But I will definitely try come again for Il Palio di Siena, and book ahead so I can get free beer in the winning contrada!


22nd August 2006

Justin your writing has come on in leaps and bounds, (I blame Catch-22), that was a truly captivating blog. Keep it up. Oh one thing, never miss out on a good party. Sleep where you fall and worry about the consequences when you wake up! Dan
29th August 2006

What a day!!
Hey JC Loved your blog on the Palio. Wish I could have been there with you as we had first planned it but next time eh! Great photos aswell! Oh and I heartily agree with you about no one caring that you were in Palermo... :P

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