Touring Siena - Infos about the city and what to visit

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  • Piazza del Campo, the pulsating heart of a unique city

The Palio of Siena, not just a horse race for brave guys but a real lifestyle!

The first modern Palio that was ridden in Siena was in 1656, and from that moment on it has remained almost the same. Maybe the only thing that really has changed is the fact that now it is probably the most famous horse race around the world and possibly, year after year the enthusiasm and the proud of Sienese people have raised.
The horse race of the Palio of Siena is held twice a year, on the 2nd of July and on the 16th of August.
The city is divided into 17 district (or “contrade”, as they are called in Italian) that confront during those races. The contrade are:

Aquila (Eagle)

Bruco (Caterpillar)

Chiocciola (Snail)

Civetta (Little Owl)

Drago (Dragon)

Giraffa (Giraffe)

Istrice (Crested Porcupine)

Leocorno (Unicorn)

Lupa (She-Wolf)

Nicchio (Seashell)

Oca (Goose)

Onda (Wave)

Pantera (Panther)

Selva (Forest)

Tartuca (Tortoise)

Torre (Tower)

Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram)
shortened to Montone

During the days before the ride the air inside the city walls is electrifying, the members of the contradas are always very busy with the preparations and like to spend most of their time together, getting ready for the big day. The race in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo, is just a part of the event. Before it starts there’s a big parade, called “corteo storico” formally commemorating institutions, customs, glory and the greatness of the ancient Republic of Siena. Being part of the parade is a great honour and all those participating wear fine clothes inspired to the fashion of the XVII century. The corteo storico passes through the main streets of the historical centre stopping in front of the Duomo (the Cathedral of Siena) and finishing in Piazza del Campo, where the race takes place.

The horse race itself, normally doesn’t last long, but the preparations and the thrilling filling the air during the moments before the start and the joy and despair (of those losing, of course) is something absolutely unique.
Imagine a whole square full of people yet silent.
Every year ten contrade are drawn lots and compete during the race. The 7 ward not racing during the first Palio will automatically run during the second, in August. The horses and jockeys represents the people (literally in Italian “il popolo”) of that district riding bareback and dressed in the appropriate colours. The first horse to cross the finish line will win. I didn’t forget by chance to cite the jockey, as to win, only matters the horse.

What really makes of these events something unique and definitely worth-coming is the fact that every ward keeps preparing these two days during the whole year. Each one of the 17 contrade plans events and activities for those belonging to the ward, which have the aim of both reinforce the bond between the members of these closed communities and raise money that will be invested during the race to make secret deals having the objective to crush their patrons' enemies.
As I said, the Palio is definitely a closed world, that one can enter only by being baptized in the church of a Contrada. This contingency may occur only in case one of your parents already belongs to one of this “contrade clan” (a sort of second condition, brought back by the first one, somehow). It sounds like a genealogy or a parentage, but maybe this is one of the reasons why the Palio of Siena is still able to thrill the audience this way: because they feel a sort of strong bond, a deep feeling of belonging to the city but, most of all, to their own contrada.