The Siena Palio is Italy’s most spectacular festival event: a twice-yearly bareback horse race around the Campo, preceded by days of preparation, medieval pageantry and chicanery. Only ten of the seventeen contrade, chosen by lot, take part in any one race; horses and jockeys too are assigned at random. The seven that miss out are automatically entitled to run the next year. The only rule is that riders cannot interfere with each other’s reins. Otherwise, anything goes: each contrada has a traditional rival, and ensuring that it loses is as important as winning oneself. Jockeys may be bribed to throw the race or whip a rival or a rival’s horse; contrade have been known to drug horses and even to ambush a jockey on his way to the race.
Held since at least the thirteenth century, the race originally followed a circuit through the town. Since the sixteenth century it has consisted of three laps of the Campo, around a track covered with sand and padded with mattresses to minimize injury to riders and horses.
There are two Palios a year, on July 2 and August 16, each of which is preceded by all manner of trial races and processions. At around 5pm on the day of the Palio the Palazzo Pubblico’s bell rings, and riders and comparse – equerries, ensigns, pages and drummers in medieval costume – proceed to the Campo for a display of flag-twirling and pageantry. The race itself begins at 7.45pm on July 2, or 7pm on August 16, and lasts little more than ninety seconds. At the start all the horses except one are penned between two ropes; the free one charges the group from behind, when its rivals least expect it, and the race is on. It’s a hectic and violent spectacle; a horse that throws its rider is still eligible to win. The jockeys don’t stop at the finishing line but keep going at top speed out of the Campo, pursued by frenzied supporters. The palio – a silk banner – is subsequently presented to the winner.
While seating is available in viciously expensive stands (booked months ahead; try Palio Tickets www.paliotickets.com), most spectators crowd for free into the centre of the Campo. For the best view, find a position on the inner rail by 2pm (ideally at the start/finish line), then stand your ground; people keep pouring in until just before the race, and the swell of the crowd can be overwhelming. Toilets, shade and refreshments are minimal, and you won’t be able to leave the Campo until at least 8.30pm. Hotel rooms are very hard to find; if you haven’t booked, either visit for the day or stay up all night.