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The Palio of Siena

Published on 28/04/17 in Reading

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                                                               The Palio of Siena

                             A horse race dating back to the Middle Ages

... My second impression wasn’t long in coming when walking just a little ways further in Siena, we heard some drums beating. Curious to see what was happening, we followed the alleys with the commotion directing us to a square where a crowd of people holding banners was cheering.  The drummers were dressed in medieval clothing, as were other young people. In the middle of the square, we saw a horse decorated with ribbons, and the people’s shouts were directed at it.

“Eagle!  Go!  Eagle!  You’ll win!”

The horse appeared nervous and was headed towards a church, which we were astounded to see it enter.

“The Palio!  The Palio!” shouted my husband, and grabbed my hand so that we wouldn’t get lost in the crowd.

“How lucky you are, let’s go so you can see!”

“What is it?” I asked, irritated by all the pushing and shoving.

“A horse race that takes place in the central square,” he explained.  “It originates from medieval times.”

“Why did the horse enter the church?”

“So that the priest can bless it,” he replied.

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I looked around me dizzily. What I understood was that the people around me weren’t quite right in their heads.  All that shouting for a horse, just to get it inside a church, seemed crazy to me.  We left the square and, a little bit further down, in another neighbourhood, we encountered the same thing. Drums, banners, in different colours, and a shouting crowd.  Only the name of the horse here wasn’t ‘Eagle’ but ‘Owl’.

“Why do they call it that?” I asked.

“Each neighbourhood gives its own name to its horse.  ‘Wolf’, ‘Giraffe’, ‘Unicorn’, ‘Turtle’.  The contrade (neighbourhoods) are seventeen in all.”

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I found myself wondering if the Sienese weren’t all crazy. Maybe it was because they lived so close to one another and they couldn’t get enough air? Of course, I was the only one asking this question, because the Palio was in their souls as much as football is in the souls of a Brazilian.

It happened twice a year, every 2 July and 16 August, and at night they would set up tables in the streets and start eating and drinking. Each neighbourhood celebrated separately and they didn’t even speak to one another. The next day, the day of the race, it was as if a battle was taking place. 

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That evening, in the central square, the Campo, with its gothic buildings and the Palazzo Comunale, everything looked as it did in medieval times. There was sand on the ground for the race, stands for the onlookers, banners were flying in the air and expensive fabrics draped outside the windows, like in the days that foreign dignitaries were greeted into the city... An excerpt from the book: A Year in Tuscany

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