On the day of the Palio in Siena is dressed up in its finest festival attire. Each district displays its colorful banners and wood and sand is laid in the main piazza. This already beautiful and historical city transforms itself day by day leading to the big event until one is truly transported back to the era of the Renaissance.
This historic race has happen every year since the 1600’s on July 2 and August 16. Ten jockeys race bareback on horses to win the coveted prize, the banner of the Madonna and child.
Ten of the seventeen district are chosen to run each year, the seven which did not participate the previous year and three others chosen by a lottery.
But It’s not just a race between horses and jockeys. Neighborhoods, shops, families whole streets are brought together supporting and rooting throughout the whole event for their district to win. This year the ten districts that participated are:
Lupa (Shewolf): Black, white, orange
Torre (Tower): Elephant with a tower on its back. Burgundy, white, blue
Bruco (Caterpillar): Yellow, green, blue.
Chiocciola (Snail): Red , yellow, blue.
Aquila (Eagle): Yellow, black, blue.
Nicchio (Seashell): Blue, yellow with red.
Oca (Goose): Green and white red.
Onda (Wave), symbol a dolphin: Blue and white.
Tartuca (Turtle): Yellow and blue.
Selva (Forest). A rhino with a tree on its back: Green ,yellow-orange with white stripes
It does not matter whether there is sun or rain, in the Palio of July, and even more in August, people gather hours prior to the start in order to enjoy the show in the main square. First there is the parade, with its costumes and colors. Flag-wavers, public officials, jockeys, horses stride by. As the wagon with the prize comes in there is a riot of scarves that are waved in the air to pay their respects and as I was told to bring good fortune to their district. The heat makes it difficult to stand and watch the parade. Despite the presence of numerous spots where you can buy drinks, to reach them in the crowd is not easy. This spectacle takes three to four hours during the afternoon. But no one seems to care or feel tired from the long hours. All anxiously await the start, when the horses begin to line up along the edge of the street. Even this part of the show , although it may seem trivial , is important. The instant the horses line up, jockeys size each other up , as if this gesture could decide the fate of the race itself.
The race does not always start on the first attempt , indeed , it is difficult to happen. But when the race begins, the square comes alive . Its all over in about 90 seconds. The horses fly on the sand, some fall, others come to an end . But only one will be the winner. The winner will get not only the victory, but the adulation of the crowd. The jockey will be carried on the shoulders of supporters throughout all the districts . This year Jockey Giovanni Atzeni brought home the victory for the district of the Onda (Wave).
The celebrations last for several days. I noticed in this atmosphere of exuberance that those who were defeated were not that disheartened, In fact they seemed to be preparing for the for next years challenge. For those who, like me, live as a mere spectators we take away our wonderful memories no matter who came in first.