About six years ago we wandered into the city of Siena in Tuscany while on holiday. To be honest we had no idea what to expect as we entered this gorgeous city with narrow cobble stone streets and old buildings with history in every brick and wooden door.
We noticed that many of the people wandering around the town were wearing scarves and it took a while to realise it was to do with a famous horse race and not a soccer match!
Sitting in a cafe on one of these narrow streets doing our share of people watching and soaking up the atmosphere we started to hear some drumming and a crowd chanting …. this chant got louder and louder and a pattern emerged. You could hear males chanting this song, then women, then children and then everyone together and the magical sequence started again.
Louder and louder the chanting seemed to get closer to where we were sitting – eventually the group were led by some flag wavers and a horse with a trainer, followed by hundreds of men, then children and then women all continuously chanting.
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck and this was the moment I fell in love with Siena and the Palio.
The Palio di Siena (known locally simply as Il Palio) is a horse race that is held twice each year, on July 2 and August 16, in Siena, Italy. Ten horses and riders, bareback and dressed in the incredible colours, represent ten of the seventeen contrade, or city districts.
The race itself (after hours of pomp and ceremony, believe me!), in which the jockeys ride bareback, circles the Piazza del Campo, on which a thick layer of dirt has been laid, three times and usually lasts no more than 90 seconds. The race is frantic with jostling between jockeys who are often thrown off their horses while making the treacherous turns in the piazza. The winner is greeted by incredible celebrations from the supporters from that contrade.
This year was the forth time we have come to Siena for both the beautiful place (the city is beautiful and it is located in the middle of Tuscany and the Chianti wine growing region) and the festival and I wonder why do we keep coming back when there are so many other fabulous places to be discovered?
Is it the pomp and the ceremony, is it the beautiful city or is it the excitement of the race?
This year I think I finally figured it out … All of the things that I have mentioned make Siena and the Palio very special and if you look at the pictures or the clips on YouTube you will get a sense of it.
What you won’t see online is the incredible sense of togetherness, community and belonging of the people that you will only witness when you experience the event for yourself.
They say in Siena you are baptised twice – once in Siena and then in your Contrade, which is your part of town. This is the part that means everything to you.
During the Palio practically every man, woman and child from each place comes out, participates in the blessing of the horse, the marching and the chanting. And every night (there are a few rehearsal days in advance of the “big” race) the groups get together in their part of town for a feast – you will see thousands of people all gathered, sharing food and drink proudly celebrating their colours and where they are from.
In most other countries the event would be commercialised and sponsored – in Siena it has and will always be untainted.
On the night of the Palio this year after the race was over we found ourselves walking in the middle of the crowd from a particular contrade who happened to be heading in the same direction – we listened to the chanting and we watched as people waved from the windows, even a nun was hanging out her window frantically waving her flag and cheering!
The hairs stood up on the back of my neck once again – I love Siena because for a moment you feel the power of community, you see people who are proud to march and show their colours, you feel part of something and sense the power of being together.
Do we have to go to Siena to feel like that?