My First Palio

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"July 2, 2010.

Imagine the Piazza del Campo, majestic and beautiful, brimming with a crowd louder and more invested in what’s about to happen than any crowd you’ve ever seen. Tens of thousands strong, they’re singing, yelling, hoping and praying. They’re wearing their contrada’s fazzoletto tied in the front and hanging over their shoulders to show their allegiance. For the Senese, life revolves around the contrada and this event. Heck, even my life has been affected by the Palio.

So imagine standing in the middle of that crowd, willingly trapped in the centre of the piazza, in the late afternoon heat. You don’t quite understand all of what’s taking place, but you’re happy to just be part of all the Medieval pomp and circumstance.

The crowd.

The crowd.

That was me at my first Palio.

Flag-throwing alfieri

Flag-throwing alfieri

Wig-wearing, costumed tamburini (drummers) and alfieri (flag-throwers) promenade around the piazza for the Corteo Storico. The rat-a-tat-tatting of the drums and whooshing of the flags can be heard even above the excited chatter of the crowd. Then, before you know it, there are 10 horses, each bearing contrada colours, being ridden bareback by 10 brave jockeys out the large wooden doors of the Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall) to a thunderous applause. Numbers are drawn and announced over a loudspeaker. The starting positions are set.



Then, into the pen they go. The jockeys, atop their circling horses, whisper last-minute threats, pledges and bribes to one another, all in hopes of swaying the race’s outcome. Race? No, it’s not just a race. There’s blood, honour, tradition and a year’s worth of bragging rights on the line.

Finally, the jockeys allow their horses to line up calmly, and a hush comes over the crowd. And just when you’re least expecting it, the number 10 horse, from behind, charges ahead and starts them running.

The pack of horses sprints around the piazza, the thunder of their 40 hooves barely audible over the cheering and jeering of the crowd. I’m cheering for Drago, the dragon contrada. A few seconds after the start, it’s evident Drago is not doing well.

I turn my body to follow the pack of horses around the piazza, trying to my best to snap pictures all the way. With only one lap to go, it looks like the Selva (forest) contrada might win.



Selvaaaaaaaa!” Anyone wearing Selva colours is now yelling with every fiber of their being, imploring their expended energy to somehow make its way into the legs of their horse and propel it across the finish line. First.

As the pack passes for its third lap, I’m momentarily confused as crazed contradaioli start jumping into the track and chasing, yes chasing the pack of horses, one or two of which are now rider-less, after having lost their jockeys on one of the treacherous San Martino curves. Are they crazy?

When it’s Selva that crosses the finish line first, the whole scene degenerates into the most chaos I have ever witnessed.

People spill everywhere. There’s not a stitch of order to anything.

Horses are snorting and kicking and trying to evade being stopped. Grown men shed tears, both of happiness and anger. A couple ambitious Selva members climb through the crowds and retrieve their coveted Palio banner. The Selva jockey, I see through the throngs of people, is hoisted onto the shoulders of two Selva members and is paraded, with the winning horse, to the Duomo.

And as each contrada leads its horse out of the piazza, it’s all over.

all over

Il Palio di Siena ~ Siena’s Palio Horserace

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Maybe you’ve heard of Siena, and maybe you haven’t. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you have).

Maybe you’ve heard of Il Palio, or maybe not.

I have a hard time gauging how well-known both Siena and the Palio are because they’ve become such a big part of my life. I can hardly imagine someone not having heard of my favourite town in Italy or its most exciting event. I’m a little too close; I can’t see the forest for the trees.

In about a month’s time, on July 2nd, this year’s first Palio will be run in Siena. What is the Palio you ask? Well. In order to understand the Palio, you first need to understand how Siena is organized.

In modern-day Siena (which sounds funny to me since Siena is still so Medieval in my books), the city is split up into 17 contrade (neighbourhoods). Each contrada has its own name, its own symbol, its own flag, its own headquarters, its own government, its own streets, its own church, its own museum, its own social life, etc.


If you live in the old city centre, you live in a contrada, however you don’t necessarily belong to it. To belong to a contrada you’re either born into the one where one of your parents is a member, or later in life you, through connections, work, and fellow-feeling, are asked to become a member. No one is an official member until they are baptized in the contrada fountain.


The Palio is a bareback horse race that has been run since Medieval times in Siena. The race takes place twice a year, on the evenings of July 2nd and August 16th, regardless of the day these dates fall on. It’s a competition between Siena’s contrade  for honour, glory and centuries’ worth of bragging rights. The contrada that wins the race gets no money, just the Palio banner (cencio, drappellone) itself. Jockeys are hired from outside Siena, and the horses are assigned to each contrada through a draw.

Crowds awaiting the "estrazione delle contrade" or the drawing of the contrade that will run the next Palio. The drawn contrada's flags get hung out the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico in front of the waiting crowd.

Crowds awaiting the “estrazione delle contrade” or the drawing of the contrade that will run the next Palio. 

Not all the contrade run in each Palio, however. 10 run each time, and the two Palios are independent of one another. How do they pick who runs? Easy. If your contrada is one of the 10 that run in July 2014, you don’t have the automatic right to run in July 2015; the remaining 7 that didn’t run the year before do. However, because each Palio is run with 10 horses, there are three from the ones who ran in July 2014 that will also be selected to run in July 2015, through a draw that takes place a little more than a month beforehand.

Watering down the track, just days before the Palio.

Watering down the track, just days before the Palio.

A week or so beforehand, the transformation of the Piazza starts. Truckloads of tufa sand are brought in to build a track right there where there are usually tables and chairs belonging to the restaurants in the piazza. Bleachers are set up and the centre of the piazza is enclosed with wooden gates. The horses and jockeys do trial runs.

That’s all to say nothing about what’s going on in the contrade.  They’re strategizing, and eating and singing and praying and chanting. On the day of the Palio, their horse even gets pushed inside the contrada church for a special blessing. If, said horsey happens to do his business while he’s in there, tanto meglio. All the luckier! (I am not kidding.). The contradaioli (contrada members) wear their fazzoletti (scarves) in their contrada colours, and sing their contrada’s hymn.

And while there’s so much activity in the contrade, the rest of Siena practically shuts down. Stores are closed, streets are blocked off, people take the day off work. In the morning, the horses run the provaccia, the last trial run in the piazza. Then they’re blessed and prepared for the Palio.

And now that you’re prepared for the Palio, you’ll have to wait for my next post about my first Palio experience. I promise, it won’t be long coming!

Guest Post: Top 5 Reasons to Study Abroad in Siena

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"

It’s pretty impossible for anyone to have a less-than-awesome study abroad experience in Italy. The food alone is reason enough to pick Italia as your abroad destination of choice — after all, this is the birthplace of pizza and spaghetti that we’re talking about here! And Siena is, by far, one of the coolest cities in the whole country. There are tons of reasons to study abroad in Siena – somehow, I’ve managed to narrow it down to five. Check ‘em out (and try to refrain from drooling over your keyboard!):


1. The aforementioned food. I could really go on and on about the merits of authentic Italian cuisine. Once you take your first bite of pappardelle alla lepre (it’s pasta; that’s all you need to know!), there’s just no turning back. And Italian food in the Tuscany region? It’s simply the best in the world. Best of all, Siena is located smack dab in the middle of Tuscany, where the highest-quality olive oil runs as freely as the Tiber River. Be prepared to try the freshest and most mouth-watering bruschettas and antipastos that you’ve ever had in your life.

Tuscan Pici

Tuscan Pici

2. Gelato. Okay, so this could technically go in the food category, but the truth is that Italian gelato is so good that it deserves a category of its own. Gelato is just the Italian version of ice cream, but it somehow surpasses the deliciousness of any ice cream you’ve ever had (this is probably because of the butterfat content, I admit). You’ll wander the cobblestone streets of Siena, gelato dripping from your chin — and you won’t even care, because it’ll be the happiest you’ve ever been.

3. The Palio di Siena. This medieval-era horse race is one of the biggest and most historic events in all of Italy — and it happens twice a year in Siena! Basically, it involves ten jockeys racing bareback around the city’s main piazza, but the scale of it is roughly akin to the Macy’s Day Parade. If you’re lucky enough to study abroad during the Palio festivities, get ready to witness one of the coolest cultural events you’ve ever seen.


4. The Tuscan countryside. We’ve all seen the requisite pictures of Tuscan olive groves and green countryside. But, the truth is that until you’ve seen those rolling hills and gorgeous vineyards for yourself, you really won’t understand. Experiencing the Tuscan countryside should be on everyone’s bucket list — the sheer beauty of it is just that amazing. Get ready to experience some of the loveliest villages and mountainous views that you’ve ever seen when you decide to study in Siena.


5. It’s not as touristy as other major Italian cities. Though it’s close to some of the bigger tourist hot spots in Italy, Siena itself just isn’t as touristy in comparison. This makes for an excellent cultural opportunity for students — in Siena, you’ll get a much more authentic feel for Italian life than you would if you studied abroad in Rome, or even Florence. You’ll also get more of a chance to be fully immersed in the Italian language — meaning, you’ll be speaking Italiano in no time (which, trust me, will make you feel like something of a linguistic rock star!).


About the Author: Justine Harrington is an admissions advisor for SPI Study Abroad, a provider of language immersion and global leadership programs for high school students. She studied abroad in the south of France – it was no Siena, but it wasn’t too shabby. Justine adores languages and travel, dreams of adopting at least five dogs, and has never met a bowl of pasta that didn’t instantly become her best friend.