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Watching diary of Palio in Siena

Palio di Siena

On 2nd July, I watched the Palio of Siena for the first time in my life. Besides, with an invitation from the National Museum so my seat was on the balcony of the Pacale next to the Square. Even on the balcony with a shade it was also hot...
Anyway, since I was extremely grateful for this invitaion, I'd like to report you all about the Palio as a personal diary. Hopefully you can enjoy it!

First of all, the Palio of Siena is the traditional horse race and festival which have continued since 1147, with over 800 years story. However, if you imagine a normal race and festival, that is a big mistake! Palio is held twice a year (2nd July and 16th August), and it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the people of Siena (Seneze) would live only for these days... They become really very enthusiastic. I think in Siena, Palio is much more popular than Calcio!

Let's explain about Palio briefly. It's a horse race against the districts of the Siena town, and only 1 rider and 1 horse can participate from each district. For now, the hystorical center of Siena is diveded into 17 districts called Contrada and automatically the district in which you were born becomes your support team.

Contrada has a symbol like animal and its color is also fixed. Riders called Fantino put on the costume with their team color, and the locals of each district will put the scarves of their color during the Palio.

The number of the participation is limited, only 10 horses will be selected at the end of May for 2nd July and on the first Sunday after this Palio there is the selection for 16th August. For this time, there were following contrada:

  • Aquila (eagle, golden color + blue and black lines)
  • Civetta (Owl, Red + Black)
  • Leocorno (Unicorn, Orange + Blue + White)
  • Tartuca (Turtle, yellow + turquoise)
  • Chiocciola (Snail yellow + red)
  • Nicchio (Shell, blue + yellow and red lines)
  • Lupa (Wolf, white + black)
  • Onda (Wave, white + blue)
  • Torre (Tower, Crimson White + Blue lines)
  • Bruco (Caterpillar, yellow + green)

The remaining 7 teams always have a right to participate to the Palio one year later. Therefore, in fact only three teams are selected each year. Palio of July and August are completely independent, so there is a Contrada which can play also twice a year, or nothing.

It's very complicated...!!

Each Contrada has a Nemico (enemy), which is considered rival each other. For example, Tartuca (turtle) and Chiocciola (snail), Lupa (wolf) and Istrice (porcupine) have a relationship of "Nemico". Not only one Nemico, Torre (Tower) has 2 rival districts: Onda (Wave) and Oca (Duck)!!

This struggle and hostility are much more fierce than literary. For example, during the Palio period, the people of Siena become fierce finding a person with a scarf of Nemiko and start to launch bad words and slangs, likely to fight.

The lack of rules means, for example that the horse doesn't have a saddle, so its control is very difficult and fall accidents occur infrequently. In addition, before the race, acquisition of jockey by Nemico's Contrada is not rare. Also during the race, strong hits of each other occur often. They are pushing rivals or anything worse could happen.

The horses are determined by lot a few days before the race. This is one of the most important moments to decided the victory, so a live broadcast will be transmitted on the local television, and all people are also looking forward to this moment. Of course there are horses with good reputation or bad, so a Contrada which grabs a horse that can not seem to win will leave their victory only for luck, or try to do the "strategy" of acquisition of Nemico.

This acquisition is not totally illegal act, so the local people of Siena say that the Palio is the most innocent (pulito) sport. Actually, rigging doesn't exist certainly.
The horse decided is never changed from that moment. Even if that horse would be dead before the race, there would be no another horse for that Contrada.

On the race day the parade dressed in medieval costumes of all 17 Contrada. When a team passes through its rivals' district in the town, a loud chorus of a song that ridicules the other team comes up.

I heard even that a marriage between the different Nemico is difficult!

For this time I supported the Contrada of my friend who invited me: Leocorno (Unicorn). It's a fairly strong district which won 2-3 times in the past few years. There're also weak, or unlucky Contrada. For example, Torre (Tower) hasn't had victory for more than 40 years (their last vitory was the 16th August of 1961). Those Contrada are called "La Nonna (Grandma)".


The riders are paid by each district and hired every time. It's not necessary that local people sould be. There is of course a good or bad rider. Some veteran jockey have won more than 10 times, but Palio horse race doesn't have a gentile rule, so also young jockeys can often win.


The race starts at 7:00 in evening in the Piazza del Campo (It's said the most beautiful squares in the world). For the Palio, sands of tuff are laid in this square to harden the earth and make beautiful courses.

On the race day, at 13 o'clock a blessing ceremony (Benedizione) of each horse started at a church. Naturally, every districts have their own church for this blessing of the horse. Fortunately I was able to attend the blessing of Unicorns, allowed only for the local people.

A small church becomse full of the locals. Since who can not enter tries to see also from the outside, please turn off the mobile phone and no flash photos is obligated. It's very dangerous because a nervous horse which will run the race in a few hours later inside the crowded church.
Receiving the blessing of prayer, the horse went out and the locals were shouting "we'll come back with the victory!!".

After that it's held a medieval parade of all Contrada with their own uniform. So exciting! This parade will arrive in the center of the Piazza del Campo around 16 o'clock, and continue also more three hours in evening. Piazza del Campo becomes overcrowded and difficult to enter in these time.

In the each Contrada parade there are two flag bearers (bandieraio) and bring a huge flag beautifully. Also bearers will be awarded by the judge separately.
At the end of parade, only 10 bearers of the participant Contrada throw the flag of his Contrada in the sky. It's said that the Contrada of a bearer who throw his flag highestly will win the race.

(Photo: The incandescent flag of the victory. It is said that shaking your scarf to the parade of your Contrada bring you a good luck)

And finally it became seven o'clock. Flag Bearers and the horses appeared after the signal of a large blank shot. At that moment the courses are determined by a lottery. Generally saids 2nd, 3rd, and 4th courses from the inside is best, and the first course is most inside (this time was Torre = Tower) so it's a bit cramped between the fences. The names of the Contrada are called in the order of the course from inside, and each time many cheers come up by locals.

A horse of the 10th cource should start about five meters behind from the other 9 horses. Of course it's most unfavorable, but when the 10th horse (this time was Aquila = eagle) start to run, the race begins and other 9 horses can start.
When the cource is determined, the acquisition is began by the jockeys. The conversation is not listenable, but you can see the jockeys swirling around on the horse and talk each other.

After the improper acts of a few minutes, all jockeys reach to the starting line finally. Since there is no border between horses, they are very confused and restless. 50,000 spectators will be silent with no word at that moment.

Nine jockeys in front are turning their heads back manipulating the horses, and concentrated on the moment of starting of the 10th horse (Aquila = eagle). The jockey of the eagle Aquila is waiting a good moment and start suddenly.
The race finishes with only three laps (300 meters each), it takes about 1 minute. Therefore, the timing of starting is very important as a breathtaking moments.

Soon after the starting of the 10th horse behind, the other 9 horses start to run at the maximum speed.They run very very fast also at the sharp curves. At the first lap the fantastic Bruco (Caterpillar) was the first, and second was Nicchio (Shell) which had less high reputation.

At the most dangerous curve of the square, the curve of San Martino, Nicchio (Shell) is trying to surpass from outside. However the jockey of the Bruco (Caterpillar) is a famous jockey with enough experience, and push out the Nicchio (Shell) by the elbow. The Nicchio's horse fell and the Bruco (Caterpillar) won the third lap and got the victory.

The excited people rushed into the area also before the moment of its goal and made a big chaos. The fallen jockey of the Nicchio was then brought by ambulance so it might be in critical condition. In the case of the Palio, if only horse without a jockey contines to run, that Contrada is still in the competition. In the past, there was a dramatic conclusion of the victory of a horse without jockey.

Well, excited Bruco (Caterpillar) fans rushed to touch the pennant immediately. Other people who lost Contrada left the Piazza del Campo a quick pace.

In the district of the winner Contrada, of course a big festival and victory celebrations are held. The dinner parties last also a month. Winners parade proudly over the town every night, singing their song. Traditionally, everyone take pacifiers for baby in mouth... (meaning unknown). Non-winning Contrada's flag are put down, and lost people swear vendect for the next Palio.

(Siena, Italy-July 2005)

from ITALY
Palio of Siena is excited

Palio is more exciting than football!! If you have a time to "study" about Contrada (team), the competition rules and history of the Palio in advance, you'll enjoy much more.