Imagine that your hometown team will be competing in the biggest sporting event of the year, as it does every year, right in the center of town. Pack the venue with over 50,000 spectators, both local and international, all there to see your team participate. Now bring on all the fanfare and hoopla in the days leading up to the main event, including an open-air feast and a ritual blessing of the key player. Now imagine that this monumental sporting event lasts just seventy-five seconds…
For the people of Siena, Italy, this fantasy is a reality. Considered Italy’s most famous annual sporting event, Palio is a horse race that combines pageantry, competition, and civic pride. The Tuscan hillside town of Siena fans out from the central, shell-shaped Piazza del Campo town square, where the race is run. It extends outward, through the maze of cobblestone alleyways, stone houses, shops, and smaller piazze. Siena is divided into seventeen contrade, akin to the boroughs of Manhattan, in which neighborhoods aspire to a passionate regionalism based on centuries old tradition. Since the Middle Ages, ten of the contrade vie one another for bragging rights achieved by a victory in a bare-back horse race that’s one lap around the piazza. The first horse to cross the finish line, with or without the rider, wins.
The race, held twice a year on July 2 and August 16, is preceded by as much pomp and circumstance as the post-race victory parties. Participants and spectators have been brought to their knees over a loss, or a win. Every stage is critical, from the initial presentation of the horses, to the “tratta” in which the horses and jockeys are matched. It continues with the five preliminary runs, to the final rehearsal dinner, to the blessing of the horse and jockey inside the contrada’s parish church, and finally to the race.
I attended my first Palio with my dad when I was ten years old. With my Aquila scarf wrapped securely around my shoulders, I cheered parade flagbearers marching down the ancient cobblestone streets while my gelato ran down my arm. We watched a trial run. Serious business, as men in suits converged to hash out the players’ worth, similar to a football draft, only with horses. My favorite part was the pre-race dinner. I couldn’t believe that with all the eating, the drinking, the singing, and the cheering, they had yet to run the race! Though we missed the main race, I’d experienced something truly memorable.
Years later, my husband, Jamie, and I made it to the big event. We packed into Piazza del Campo with my cousins in early morning…and waited. For hours beneath the August sun, the piazza filled with spectators, standing shoulder-to-shoulder, or peering out from hotel windows overlooking the track. Fans from competing contrade would argue, laugh, make bets, and proudly wave their flags’ colors. At dusk, the tension was palpable. The crowds roared as the horses cantered into the piazza. The tradition of centuries past, and the competitive spirit roiling between the contrade, and the anxiety built up over days of preparation all came down to a race lasting just over a minute. In one mad dash around the track, colors blazed past us in a blur. Men, women, and children shouted and chanted the names of their contrada. Cameras flashed. Hoof-beaten dust flew into the humid Sienese twilight. I don’t remember who won. But I bet it was Aquila.
Like a good thriller, Palio’s suspense builds to a satisfying climax that resonates with fans until long after it ends. Want to live the thrill? Head to Palio. Want to read about it? My latest mystery novel, FORMULA, features Palio, and it’s coming soon!