Forget the Grand National - when it comes to horse racing, Siena's the place to be, as it has been since the Middle Ages
Twice a year, the quaint Tuscan town of Siena comes alive for what has been called one of the greatest horse races in the world. Dating back to medieval times, the race was first held around 1650, and is run bareback around the historic cobbled Piazza del Campo.
For the week leading up to the race the whole town is wracked with intrigue and machinations, as the various contrade (or districts) of the town draw lots to see which will take part and which horse and jockey they will be allocated. The jockeys and horses come from outside the town, and only 10 of the 17 contrade are selected to take part in each race.
Once this has been decided the fun starts. The rules of the race basically state that there are no rules (well, only one: no jockey is allowed to interfere with another's reins). Bribing, kidnapping and doping of horse and rider are all permitted and the jockeys are kept as virtual prisoners to stop them being got at by other contrade. This could be to prevent them being hurt or kidnapped, or even bribed to throw the race.
A number of practice races are held in the days before the main event and offer a good chance to see a version of the Palio without having to endure the massive crowds of the actual race.
The night before the race each horse is taken to each contrada's local church, where it is blessed. Should it leave a deposit for the priest's roses then it is considered particularly auspicious. Next, horse and jockey are guests of honour at a large barbecue held in each district, which goes on until the small hours.
The big day
The piazza is a large, irregular semi-circle. There are a number of banked seats on the outside of the track, some of which are rented out. Those on the long straight are reserved for members of the contrade. Some locals rent out balcony space for hundreds of euros, but you can stand in the fenced-off centre of the square for free – although the place is crammed and keeping a place by the rail can take some ‘assertion’.
On the morning of the race, each of the horses is taken in procession from its adopted district, escorted by the members of the contrada dressed in medieval costume and sometimes even suits of armour. They are accompanied by flag bearers who twirl the contrada’s flags and throw them up in the air like drum majorettes. The pageant goes on for a good hour, by which time all of the members of the contrade are seated on the long straight.
Certain contrade are allies of each other; others are sworn enemies. The reason for the practice races is to assess which horses have a chance of winning. If you have drawn an old nag and a useless jockey, then you might decide to instruct them to impede the horse of an enemy contrada in order that a preferred one might triumph. I have even heard of a jockey being paid a bounty for every blow he managed to land on a competing jockey's head
Once all of the contrade are in their seats then the race is ready to begin. Nine of the horses line up at the start and the race begins when the tenth barges through them. This is called the mossa. There are a number of false starts before the race gets under way.
The actual race only lasts for a few minutes, but is full of action. The horses race round the track three times. Many of the riders fight each other as they hurtle round and, as the race is bareback, they risk falling off, especially at the sharp corners at the end of the straight. Sometimes a horse will skid around these corners and fly into the large pile of mattresses designed to catch them. This is one element of the race that has caused major controversy over the years. Although the town has invested heavily in veterinary facilities, horses can get injured and even occasionally killed in the Palio.
A riderless horse can still win, but should a rider fall off he will often be accused of deliberately throwing the race and despite any injuries may be pursued by members of the contrada seeking retribution.
At the end of the third lap the first horse across the line is declared the winner, and the members of the winning contrada surge towards the judges' platform to claim the palio, which is a coloured silk banner. Sometimes a rival contrada will attempt to stop the prize from being awarded, further stoking animosities that can last for generations.
The Palio (www.ilpalio.org
) is run twice a year, on 2 July and 16 August. The drawings for the horses are on 29 June and 13 August respectively. Unless you really know what you are doing, I would advise against sporting any of the contrada banners and colours that are sold as souvenirs. Passions run high at this event, and you don’t want to inadvertently pick a fight with some disgruntled locals from another contrada
Where to stay
Hotel Athena: a modern hotel, a quick walk from the Piazza del Campo.
Grand Hotel Continental Siena: five-star hotel in the centre of Siena, just a short hop from the Piazza del Campo. Rooms are decorated in opulent classical style.
Piccolo Il Palio Hotel: a budget two-star hotel, in a converted monastery, close to the Pizza del Campo.
During the Palio, accommodation in Siena gets booked up quickly, and is expensive. It is possible to camp 2km to the north or stay at nearby Florence and commute by train - just remember to check the times of the last train back.