Thursday, July 3, 2008

Il Palio di Siena


This year's winner, the Istrice Contrada, bringing it home!

This is a post blog posting addition to this entry that I found on the internet, Joe and I are positioned about 5 meters behind the jockey's right foot. Note the two riderless horses in the distance. 


If you do not know much about Il Palio, grab something to drink and sit down a spell to hear about this great and ancient tradition held in Siena on July 2nd and again on August 16th every year.

First off, it's a Horse Race.

But not a simple, ordinary, every day Santa Anita Racetrack style horse race by any means. 

9:00 a.m., Joe and I arrive in Siena

First of all, Il Palio is not held at a racetrack at all, but instead in Siena's Il Campo Piazza. Il Campo is the main square in the old, historical center of Siena.

Note that dirt has been laid on the outer rim of the piazza to a hard-packed depth of about 2 inches. This is where the 10 horses will run their 3 lap race around the piazza. The race will last about 1 minute.


It was going to be a long, hot, humid day as the race was not scheduled to start until 7:30 p.m. We needed a pannini and a huge water, Naturale please, to start the marathon that is Palio Day.

Picking a Contrada

The city of Siena is divided into 17 neighborhoods called Contradas. Each Contrada has it's own church in which a Sienese will be baptized, get married and probably will host your funeral.

At random 10 Contradas will be picked to run in the Palio due to the small size of Il Campos "track". There is a whole rotational system in place so that no Contrada ever misses more than two Palios in a row.

To get into the spirit of the day, you MUST pick and thus root for a Contrada. I opted for La Torre (The Tower). This Contrada is located directly behind the Tower building that dominates Il Campo.

The fact that La Torre's icon is an Elephant may explain, in part, why I liked them so much.

In the picture above, I am holding La Torre's official flag.  

Joe holding the flag of his pick, the Civetta Contrada

AT Rio Mesa H.S., Joe's nickname is "The Owl". The Civetta Contrada uses the owl as it's icon. Conicidence?

The La Torre building in the background

Our eventual spot to watch the race will be one person away from the rail, in the infield, under the second window from the right of La Torre.

The Contradas Dress Up On Game Day!

This is in the Onda Contrada symbolized by a dolphin.

Guard La Torre With Your Life!

This guard protects La Torre from attack by other Contradas. His weapon of choice is the 14th century halberd.

La Torre is an equal opportunity flag waving building.

The Siena Duomo was worth viewing on our morning stroll.

The Selva Contrada, a.k.a., the Rhinoceros.

Horses get blessed at their Contrada's home church.

We randomly walked into this race horse on the main street circling Il Campo being led to his blessing at around noon. This was La Pantera Contrada's stallion for today's race.

Contrada Flags for Sale!

Lots of medieval and thus very cool souvenirs are for sale.

Il Campo at about 1:00 p.m.

Walking through the Onda Contrada.

Their icon is the dolphin and they had great street lights.

La Pantera Contrada on their walk to join their horses blessing.

Each Contrada will eventually parade around Il Campo for two hours before Il Palio.

This gives you a good idea of the size of each Contrada's ebtourage.

Lunch Break with Giovanni

Before entering Il Palio's infield area for good, we decided that a real meal was in order since we were surviving now mainly on a diet of panforte, water and gelato.

Due to a previous Siena scouting trip with our son Mike and his bride-to-be Vanessa, I knew just the spot. A small, out of the way wine cellar/ristorante just off the main trade routes. Nondescript on the outside, it would not catch an unprepared tourist's eye.

So it now had three strong positives going for it,
1. it was uncrowded
2. I knew it's wine and food to be a solid choice and
3. if you eat in the wine cellar it is about 20 degrees cooler than it is outside!

Giovanni, our waiter, was a hoot. He is from Salerno and really doesn't care about Il Palio except to know the winning Contrada so that after the race he can go to it and join in their mega-party... SMART PARTY ANIMAL!

In the wine cellar they had a TV set tuned into the RAI 3 channel that was running a live show called "96 hours of Il Palio". They were breaking down every aspect of the race, the city, the food, etc. By watching it and their shots of Il Campo, we would gauge how long to stay in our cool,  wine fortified bunker before actually braving our last meandering into the infield for good.

At 3:30 p.m. it was time! We wanted to be sure to get a good spot near the start/finish line. Upon arriving, we were TOO LATE, we would have been about 10 people from the railing. So a quick scan took us to our best possible location for our 4 1/2 hours of standing and waiting.

What makes a good Il Palio spot? First to be near the railing, this spot is on the backstretch in front of La Torre. It is on the side of Il Campo that will get shade the soonest which with the heat combined with my aversion for physical fitness is CRITICALLY IMPORTANT! Finally this spot put us only one person from the railing and the couple at the railing were both under 5 foot 6 inches in height!

We Bond With Our New Neighbors and Friends

Enrico and "La Bella" Bianca from Grosetto near Milan

This is he couple at the railing. We opted for them because of the fact that they were vertically challenged but we fell in love with them for their friendliness and wealth of Il Palio knowledge.

This was, they guessed, their 15th Il Palio. They knew all the ins and outs of the goings on and were more than happy to let us in on their tidbits of information. Because of randomly meeting this couple, our experience took a quantum leap!

Ray and Ben from Liverpool

This father-son duo was a rookie Il Palio team also. LIVERPOOL fans, they had a lot to be proud of in calcio crazy Italy.

Juanma and Maria from Madrid

They want me to go to Pamplona next week for the "Running of the Bulls". They recommended being a spectator not a participant.

Nancy from San Francisco

How could I not fall in love with that smile and the fact that she is a California girl?

Il Campo at about 4:00 p.m.

Let the Pageantry Begin!

At 4:20 p.m. they clear the track and close off all entries into the infield save one.

At 5:30 p.m. the Parade starts with the Carabinieri leading off with a two lap romp. Here is the second lap at a full gallop with swords at the ready. When they reached the straightaway behind us they drove the crowd into a frenzy with a full speed cavalry charge, swords now fully extended menacingly.

Il Campo at about 6:00 p.m.

The Heralds

The Drum and Bugle Corps

Contradas on the March

Is this what they mean by local color?

La Torre's Horse Today

La Torre's Il Palio History of Victories

Their first win was on July 2, 1652 and the last of their 44 victories came on August 16, 2005.

Siena Big Wigs Arriving

The final group to enter is in this wagon driven by a team of oxen the size VW busses only heavier.

The Official July 2, 2008 Il Palio Banner

The Contrada's paraders gird for battle!

As the Contradas finished their portion of the Parade, they filed into the seating across from us to add even more color to the spectacle!

Finally the horses and bareback riding jockeys entered the track.


As the horses entered the track and pranced by the stands, the individual Contrada members went somewhat crazy to say the least when their horse and rider came into view.

Il Campo at about 7:30 p.m.

Joe and I are now with, newspapers and TV stations estimated, 50,000 of our newest friends.


The rules are quite simple really. Three laps, anything goes! The first horse to cross the finish line wins even if it throws it's rider!

To start the race all 10 horses must be at the starting rope which is simply dropped to start the race. Sounds simple but the Aquila (eagle) Contrada's horse REFUSED to participate! The other nine horses were at the line and REALLY wanted to run, Aquila not so much.

Aquila's horse would get to within 10 meters of the rope and turn around and trot back as much as 50 meters farther away and then re-approach. This went on for 25 minutes!

While he was doing his thing, the other nine horses and jockeys proceeded to joustel, bump and mostly irritate each other. The crowd turned a little ugly and the European customary jeering whistling loudly rang out.

I was hot and tired and now that the 7:30 p.m. starting time was pushing 8:00 p.m. because of this horse's stubbornness I was now thinking anti-PETA thoughts. I entertained the thought of Aquila's charger breaking his leg and being put down by a hail of arrows from other Contrada's cross bow wielding archers!

Instead, when the race finally did start the race, the Aquila horse threw his rider almost instantly...KARMA?

The Istrice Contrada is our July 2, 2008 Winners!

Their icon is the porcupine and Giovanni will join them soon for a night of revelry!

Their horse led from wire to wire.

Enjoy these four Vlogs for a better understanding of this incredible event.

Flag Twirlers

Parade Action

The Combatants Enter the Track



Unknown said...

Oh, George I am so jealous. When I was in Siena the first part of June I so wanted to be there for the Palio. We saw some of the districts practicing with the flags and bands etc. I guess I will have to live it thru your camera work.
Cheers Terry

George said...


DPLassen said...

I have to agree with Terry ... of all the things you've done while you've been there, this is the one I would most liked to have been a part of. Glad you had a good time ... and that apparently it was not quite so brutal as last year, when three people died when a horse went into the crowd during one of the races. (Perhaps I forgot to mention that when talking about this earlier.)

On the other hand, on my first visit to Siena, il Campo had about 50,000 fewer people in it, and that was kind of nice, too.

George said...

David P.,

The odds of dying of a heat related issue are MUCH greater than that of an accidental horsing accident!

That was THE main near death issue by far.

lfcbo said...

I must, MUST correct you George.
I am a 100% through and through Liverpool fan, not no way no how a dirty manc supporter (Man U). So if you dont mind changing that little detail for me then, ye.
Anyway apart from that nice blog page, well done.

lfcbo said...

Than post was by Ben, as in Ray and Ben by the way.

George said...

Ben, will change that right now! Sorry, the wine must have interfered with my memory.

lfcbo said...

Im sorry this may seem tedious but im a Liverpool Fan but my Dad is the Manchester United Fan.