As they dust off funky hats and mix batches of mint juleps in
Each year, on July 2 and August 16, ten horses and bareback riders dressed in the representative colors of their districts or contrada, circle the Piazza del Campo three times for the honor of winning the Palio. “Honor” is hardly appropriate however, for Il Palio, as it is known to the locals. It is all about frenzy and war on horseback. The prize for winning is called the pallium, which is nothing more than a hand-painted silk banner, but it carries great significance for the victorious district.
Known around the globe for its beauty and architecture,
Following the initial mouth-dropping awe of the setting, the first thing visitors notice is that Piazza del Campo is anything but flat. The square slopes downward toward a row of administrative buildings known as Palazzo Pubblico, which, in turn, feed to the dangerous San Martino bend of the track. So treacherous is San Martino to navigate that during the races mattresses are placed against the walls to protect jockeys from injury if they fall. It’s not uncommon to see riderless horses at the finish.
Just before race day, operators lay a thick layer of dirt around the Campo to form the track. Thousands of spectators gather around the perimeter, peering from windows, balconies, loggias and rooftops.
Space in the center of the track is equally congested but far less desirable because the throngs of humanity become sequestered for several hours until the race has concluded.
The Palio is not a manufactured tourist event. Rather its roots lie deeply ingrained within the history of the city. The Sienese, or contrade, are passionate about their races and, though they embrace anyone and everyone who wishes to participate. The Palio is a major part of the city’s identity.
Once divided into 59 contrada, today only 17 remain. The neighborhoods evolved during the Middle Ages as a means of defending themselves from their enemies in
For many decades
The July 2 Palio honors Madonna dell’Assunta who protected
For travelers, opportunities abound to experience the spirit of the Palio without seeing the races themselves. Each event features four days of parades, pageantry and ceremony leading up to the actual running of the race.
Selection day brings great excitement to Piazza del Campo when a traditional ritual announces the chosen ten contrade to compete in the race. Thousands gather as the banners of individual districts are slowly unfurled from the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico. Tension mounts dramatically as each new banner displays, while officials agonizingly taunt the crowd by delaying the tenth, and final, pennant.
Each district has its own traditions and events as well. In the evening, rows of 50-foot tables fill with pasta, fruit, vegetables and other local cuisine. Visitors are openly welcomed and provided with endless details about why each particular district is the best of the lot.
During the day parades of flag-waving minstrels dressed in medieval clothing make their way through the winding streets of the city.
Not to missed are the muse della contrada, or district museums. Each neighborhood has one that displays memorabilia, drawings, paintings, photographs, uniforms and costumes from previous Palio events.
When race time finally arrives spectators pack themselves along both sides of the track anxiously waiting for the starting rope to drop and the three lap clockwise sprint to begin.
A brief 90 seconds later a riotous cacophony of colorful, enthusiastic celebration erupts in the square. The Palio has concluded, but preparations are already underway to see who will earn bragging rights next year.
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Peabod is Bob Taylor, owner of Taylored Media Services in
Inquiries for groups can be made at Peabod@aol.com Taylored Media has produced marketing videos for British Rail, Rail Europe, Switzerland Tourism, the Swedish Travel & Tourism Council, the Finnish Tourist Board, the Swiss Travel System and Japan Railways Group among others.
As author of The Century Club book, Peabod is now attempting to travel to 100 countries or more during his lifetime. To date he has visited 71 countries. Suggest someplace new for Bob to visit; if you want to know where he has been, check his list on Facebook. Bob plans to write a sequel to his book when he reaches his goal of 100 countries. He also played professional baseball for four years and was a sportscaster for 14 years at WBTV, the CBS affiliate in Charlotte.
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