Twice a year the city of Siena goes crazy for the most important sporting event in Italy. The festivities around this event are wild and last for days. The event itself is wilder and lasts approximately 75 seconds. It is the oldest horse race in the world – the Palio.
We are by the way, no longer on the cruise ship. We are now touring Umbria and Tuscany in a rental car. Our first stop is Siena and we had no idea that we would arrive on the eve of the race
This race is like no other. It’s run around the Piazzo Del Campo ( the main city square), the jockeys ride bareback, and there are no rules. Well, actually there is one. No rider can interfere with the reins of another horse. Other than that they can do what they want. Each rider is presented with a whip before the race. The whip is made from cured distended bulls’ penises. If there is a significance to that I am not aware of it. The jockey can use it to encourage his own horse, to hit another horse, or to even hit another jockey. The skill of the jockey is important but bribery and corruption are more important.
The jockeys ride for various “contrade”, or neighborhoods. Loved by the district if they win, loathed if they lose, the jockeys make alliances and offer bribes at the starting line, while trying to get the best start. The jockey who comes in second is held in more contempt than the one who comes in last. The contrade ask for donations from the local residents specifically for the jockey to use as bribes .
You might think that the districts spend years and large amounts of money on breeding the right horse. But they don’t. Each district gets its horse through a lottery just four days before the race. This insures that almost all the money accumulated by the district can go towards bribery and corruption, while just a little is held back to shower the horse with love, washing, and grooming as well as providing it with a stable for four days that is more like a five star hotel. Unwilling to leave the race entirely in the hands of the jockey or at the mercy of the largest bribe, the contrade ask God for a little help. The horses are actually taken into the local church and blessed. The priest says a prayer and instructs the horse to return victorious. The horse may or not do what the priest says but no one seems to mind. If the horse leaves a steaming visiting card on the church floor no one minds either. In fact it is encouraged as it is considered good luck. Does it seem strange for a church to be involved in a sporting event, especially one that involves bribery and corruption?
Actually the race is held in honour of the Virgin Mary, although what that poor woman has to do with horse racing has not been explained. She does keep popping up in the most unexpected places during this trip.
On the evening before the race there is a practice run, to allow the riders to get to know their allocated horse. It is on this day that we arrive in Sienna. The man behind the counter at the hotel is in a high state of excitement. Not because we have arrived, although I am sure that is part of it, but because it is the eve of the race and like every single Sienese, he is heavily invested emotionally and financially in the race. He has already given as much as he can afford towards the bag of cash that the jockey is given for nefarious dealings, as well as having paid an exorbitant amount of money for a seat in the bleachers. It is said that the Sienese believe that you are born, you avidly watch the Palio and then you die. Everything else in your life is of little importance.
He is shocked that we don’t know this is the eve of the race, especially as the rate for the hotel is almost double the usual rate. We had noticed how much we were being charged, but naively thought it must be that rate every weekend.
He tells us that we can either watch the race tomorrow or the rehearsal this evening from the center of Piazza del Campo. The actual race begins at 7.00 pm, which is a bit like saying your flight leaves at 7.00. No one tells you that you might sit on the tarmac for an hour before take off just as no one tells you that the jockeys can take an hour or longer to line up at the tape. Plus the pre-race festivities take another hour or more.
To get a good place inside the square for the rehearsal we must be there a couple of hours before the festivities begin. On the actual race day we should get there 3 or 4 hours before the start. Once they do begin we will not be able to leave until the event finishes. Our friendly receptionist thoughtfully adds one more important detail. There are no toilets. At our age that basically excludes us going to the race, but we might make it through this evening’s rehearsal without needing “Depends”
We walk into Siena and already the Fabulosity Meter is ringing. It is a wonderfully preserved hill town, looking today much as it must have looked in medieval times
The city is divided into contrade or districts. Each district goes by the name of a creature. There is the obvious eagle, but also strange ones like snail and caterpillar, neither one sounding like they would do very well in a race. They also have their own colours and logos, represented on flags and scarves. Every Sienese wears a scarf with his colors, and every shop sells them to tourists.
It is 4.30 as we walk up towards Piazza del Campo and the streets are already filled with people wearing scarves, all pumped up and ready to go. Flags fly from every house.
We know which district we are in by the colour of the flag. The Palio is not designed as a tourist attraction. The first race was held over 400 years ago and it has been held every year since, and the Sienese live for it. They recognise that tourists will come but nothing is done to encourage them. They tolerate the tourists, but only if they don’t get in the way.
The Piazzo Del Campo has been turned into a race track. The course around the scallop shell shaped piazza is covered in a compacted yellow coloured earth, the central part left as a free place for the audience to stand.
We get there about two hours before the festivities begin, and it’s not a moment too soon. The piazza is already crowded.
But we have no idea just how crowded it is going to get. Somehow we manage to snag a place against the wall of the race track, the most prized position of all. By 6.30 it is bedlam
The piazza is already packed but there are still hundreds of people trying to get in. The crowd is estimated at 40,000, but it feels like more.
The security guards, rather than turning people away, actually push people into the piazza, like the Japanese loading the subway trains. The locals desperately want our spot by the wall, but we won’t budge. Actually we can’t budge. I can’t even turn round the crowd is so dense. An attractive woman in her thirties, with a tight low cut dress is standing behind me. She flashes her assets my way and adds a high wattage smile, batting her eyelashes in the hope that I will let her in. But she is wasting her wiles on the wrong man.
On the outside of the track there are rows and rows of wooden benches. If you book months in advance you can get a seat there for $200.
Even better is a place on one of the balconies surrounding the piazza, but the wealthy owners of these apartments get wealthier by charging $500 and more for a place.
Each horse is walked in separately followed by a huge contingent of supporters. Somebody is letting off fire crackers. The crowd goes wild, chanting well rehearsed songs and waving their arms. I have no idea how people are finding room to raise their arms and wave. My arms are pinned to my side by the people around me. I can’t move an inch. A woman a few yards away faints. The security guards lift her high above the crowd and carry her to safety. The atmosphere is charged with excitement. I have never felt anything like it.
The proceedings start with the local horse guards galloping round the course in formation. It is an amazing sight.
Then it is time for the race. The ten horses line up at the start, and even though this is just a practice run, there is much gamesmanship going on.
Some horses stand quietly at the tape while others already have that buzz and are pacing backwards and forwards, turning round and round. And all the time the jockeys are talking to each other. The bribes are starting to be offered, even at the practice run.
Eventually the signal is made and they are off. Some jockeys give it their all, others take it a little more leisurely. But it is still an amazing sight as they thunder past. The noise from the crowd is unbelievable.
But it is only a rehearsal so after a couple of circuits the riders slow their horses and dismount. It took hours to get to this point and in a minute or less it is all over
Now the celebrations begin. Each district holds an open air dinner in the streets. Before the race we saw it all being set up
After the race the party starts. The streets are packed with revelers. Every chair is filled.
I try to take photos of the food being prepared but no one wants me to. I am not surprised. It looks like something out of a Dickension novel. Only no one is likely to say “Please sir, I want some more”
The party goes on well into the night. And it is only rehearsal night.
Stay tuned for more details. The winner of the race and much more, all to come in the next post.