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Palio di Siena

Imagine this. A jostling, impatient crowd of 33,000 people closeted in a square. An absolute cacophony of bells, bugles, trumpets and drums. Fluttering flags, spectacular banners and myriad colors all around. Charged excitement in the air. A boom echoes around the arena and suddenly a group of horses appear goaded by their jockeys. The crowd goes crazy, voices at their peak. The horses race around the arena, the jockeys intent both on racing as well as displaying open hostility to fellow jockeys. For two minutes, the entire world is filled with thundering hooves and the din of the crowd. Racing on the freshly-laid mud, around the ring, jockeys fall, horses stumble, but the race goes on. All of a sudden the race is over and a section of the crowd erupts with joy and festivities begin. This will be the longest two minutes of your life.

Welcome to the Palio di Siena, the racing silk of Siena, an emotionally charged horse-racing event that takes place in the grounds of Piazza del Campo in the beautiful city of Siena, Tuscany twice every summer. The first race (Palio di Provenzano) is held on July 2, marking the feast of the visitation and also a festival honoring the Madonna of Provenzano (a painting rumored to possess curative powers). The second race (Palio dell'Assunta), dedicated to the Virgin Mary, is held on August 16, the day after the Feast of the Assumption.

Though the race itself lasts only two minutes, the preparations for the race and the rituals are rigorous. Festivities leading to the Palio begin three days before the main race. The entire city becomes a whirlpool of activity with banquets, parades, ceremonies and trial races held every day. Days and nights are filled with revelry.

Siena, among the most notable tourist destinations in Tuscany, Italy is divided into 17 areas or contrades. Though there are 17 contrades, 10 are selected for the race and assigned a horse. The seven contrades will take part in the next race with 3 others selected at random. Tickets to the events are sold out months before the actual event. Each contrade has the most unique personality of its own. Enjoying different governments, emblems, coats of arms and territories, these contrades converge at the Palio to display their prowess not only in the race but also in the grand parade that precedes the race.

The parade before the race is a grand display of the historical culture and attributes of each contrade. A veritable feast for eyes and ears, each contrade is represented in the parade by a flag-bearer on horse-back followed by groups of drummers, trumpeters and other musicians, all decked in medieval costumes and finery. At the close of the parade, all the flag-bearers assemble together in all grandeur and to the music of the drums, bells and bugles, throw their flags in sweeping gestures in the air and catch them before they touch the ground, signaling the end of the parade.

A local authority waits for the horses and the jockeys to assemble and finally gives the signal for the race to begin. The freshly-strewn mud serves to break the jockeys fall and the square itself is fitted with crash guards all around to prevent injury to the players.

A banner of decorative silk, the Palio, awaits the winning contrade. Celebrations of the winning contrade lasts months together and is carried out with great enthusiasm and gusto.

Italy is a country of rich culture, old traditions and customs which the people still hold very dear to their hearts. It is evident in the art and architecture that dot the landscape, in the pomp and splendor with which the people celebrate their festivals, in the enthusiasm they show for the Palio. Unbridled emotions can be witnessed at the end of the Palio, though the next race and preparations for it begin just weeks later. In Siena, celebrations are a way of life and the Palio, an inseperable part of the people’s life.