Siena, Italy: Palio Horse Race

Siena, Italy: Palio Horse Race


Across Europe, festival
traditions go back centuries, and are filled with time-honored
pageantry and ritual. Entire communities
hurl themselves with abandon into the craziness. There’s no better example
than here in Italy: Siena’s Palio. Twice a year,
that spirit shows itself in a five-century-old
city-wide competition that culminates in
a crazy horse race. Siena is divided into 17
neighborhoods, or “contrade.” With their mascots and flags, these have long been competitive
and filled with rivalry. [ Crowd singing in Italian ] Each July and each August, the entire city readies itself
for the big race. Its centerpiece, Il Campo, is transformed into
a medieval racetrack as tons of clay
are packed atop the cobbles, and bleachers are set up. Before the race, competing neighborhoods gather
for communal dinners that last well into the night. There are rousing choruses with everybody cheering
their “contrada.” [ Crowd singing in Italian ] For days, processions break out
across the city. With waving flags
and pounding drums, it all harkens back
to the Middle Ages, when these rituals
boosted morale before battle. [ Applause ] A highlight of the parade is the
actual banner, or “palio.” This “palio,”
featuring the Virgin Mary, (to whom the race is dedicated), will be awarded to
the victorious “contrada.” Finally, with what seems like the entire city
packed into Il Campo, it’s race time. Bleachers and balcony seats
are expensive, but it’s free to join the masses
in the middle. The snorting horses and
their nervous riders line up, jockeying for the best spot. Silence takes over. Once the rope drops,
there’s one basic rule: There are no rules. [ Indistinct cheering ] They race bareback like crazy
while spectators go wild. Life stops for these
frantic three laps… just 90 seconds. [ Cheering continues ] When the winner
crosses the line, the winning “contrada”
goes berserk. Tears of joy flow,
people embrace. The winners
thunder through the streets and eventually
into the cathedral, filled with jubilation. Then the winners raise
their coveted “palio” high: Champions…until the next race.