The famous Siena Palio is under attack from politicians and animal activists who feel that too many horses are dying on the streets of ancient towns as horse racing in Italian streets continues to attract crowds.
Scene of the Palio, Piazza del Campo
The famous Palio in Siena which is staged on July 2nd and August 16th each year in the beautiful medieval Piazza del Campo has been pitting jockeys from different neighbourhoods against one another, since the middle of the 17th century. Amid pageantry and crowds dressed up for the occasion, horses ridden by ten colourfully dressed bareback jockeys, earlier chosen from Siena’s 17 quarters, gallop three times in two minutes around the Piazza del Campo, during which they lash both their rivals and their horses with whips made from bull penises.
Spectacle without the Horse Racing at Siena’s Palio
For those who want to avoid the actual horse racing but who would like to see a little of the pageantry, go to Siena a few weeks before. During the lead up to the main event, and especially at the week-ends, the neighbourhood support groups march through the streets and alleys of the town, narrowly avoiding confrontations with each other through luck more than route savvy. These groups are magnificently dressed in medieval costumes as they strut through the town, accompanied by their bands and sundry followers. The core group can be composed of the very elderly to the very young, all staunch members of one particular group, although I never saw any women marching.
If by chance two groups should meet, an exchange of insults is par for the course with the occasional brandishing of swords. Worse for the onlooker is the discordance of two bands playing different local anthems!
Siena in Tuscany, near Florence and Pisa
There is accommodation around the square with balconies from which to view the racing, or there is seating on certain balconies rented out for those willing to pay a premium, but this needs to be booked up early.
Siena is a magnificent town, it rivals Florence in many ways, and is easily reached by train or coach from Pisa to which most of the airlines fly these days. It is also within easy reach of Florence and could be the centre of a Tuscany touring holiday giving you access to a wealth of medieval hillside towns as well as the better known artistic centres.
I shall be returning this year, not for the Palio, but to enjoy the Piazza del Campo where it seems all Italian life is lived, to revel in the beauty of the town, and to eat some truly fabulous food.