As you all probably already know by now, Il Palio is the heart and soul of Siena. The Palio is a horseback race in which ten contradas (the town quarters in which Siena is divided) run to win the Palio – a banner (il Cencio) and silver plate. It’s a tradition that has been going on since the medieval times and the contradaioli are extremely proud of it and work all year towards it. Celebrations span over four days: the three days leading up to and the actual Palio on the 2nd of July for the Madonna di Provenzano, and there is another Palio which takes place in August.
To be honest, you really have to live in Siena to understand it. Clearly, I am not part of it, as I’m not a contradaiola but a mere Erasmus student, but having lived in Siena for the past five months has given me a big insight on the contrada life. Siena is divided in 17 contrade and I live in Drago, right on top of the società. Over the past months I’ve learned about what the locals do as a community, the different Feste Titolare in each contrada celebrating their patron saints and the different parties (so far, Megan and I have managed to attend 13 out of 17 which is not bad at all!). And, clearly, all of it leads up to the Palio festivities, so here is my experience of it!
Thursday was the proper first day running up to the Palio. I woke up late and showered before heading to the Piazza at around 12 for the Estrazione dei Cavalli. The horses running the Palio had been chosen during the prove di note, but it was during the estrazione that they were going to be tried in order to find out which were the best horses. The assignment is done by a lucky draw, but the contradaioli know which horses are worth it. In my case, I arrived to the Piazza with Dan at 12 and just missed the access to the Piazza itself which had been closed a little earlier so we had to watch from under the bleachers. We were by Bar Il Palio, in a pretty good spot as I managed to score a hole in between the seats and stairs from which I could see everything but was still in the shade. There were a lot of people in the Piazza (including Jess and Emilia who were quite close to Via Duprè) and even more tourists than usual, apart from the contradaioli sitting on the bleachers. The horses took about an hour to actually come out of Palazzo Pubblico and they ran three fake corse – it was amazing! The jockeys were dressed in white and black (the colours of Siena) and it was the first actual time seeing the horses running on the tufo. It made me so excited for the actual race! It was also very exciting because one of the fantini fell off the horse and the horse started running in the opposite direction causing chaos. Then the people started invading the pista and it was time for me to leave and beat the crowds home, after managing to snap a couple of cool shots from my location!
After that I went to Conad to buy a couple of things for the afternoon and had lunch home. The whole thing took longer than I’d anticipated, but it was worth it. I rested at home until 5ish and then headed to Megan’s to help her with the cake. We were organising a surprise leaving/early birthday party for Vero in Orto Tolomei an hour later. It took me forever to get to her house though because with the allocation of the horses and prima prova taking place later that afternoon, the Piazza and adjacent streets were absolutely packed and so I had to loop around it… We managed to ice the brownies and chop the fruit and still reach the Orto in time to meet Jess there and set up. We wanted to get the gazebo as it looked like it might rain but it was taken when we arrived so we set up on the grass instead. We made the Pimms and were ready for the surprise when Vero messaged saying she’d fallen asleep after her exam and was going to be late… So typical! So in the mean time we were gazing at the gazebo trying to figure out if the two guys were leaving anytime soon… Eventually the amount of stares, which crossed another table with three guys who totally thought we were checking them out, got out of hand and Megan took one for the team and went up to them to ask for the ‘hut’. Then we moved all our things and waited for her to come. She was so surprised and it was a very emotional moment. We gave her some presents and had the cake whilst drinking the last drops of Pimms that Megs had brought back from England. It was a lovely evening, secluded from the crowd and noise of the city centre. On our way back home at around 8 we happened to come across the Onda fantino arriving in the contrada and the people singing, it was pretty cool! Vero came over to mine to use my laptop and get her plane tickets and then I had an early night – I was so tired!
On Friday I woke up early to go to the Seconda Prova in which the fantini train with the horses around the Piazza. It was starting at nine so I got to the Piazza at half past eight and managed to score a place right on the fence by the mossa or starting line. I was insanely close – I could stretch my arm and touch the horses! I was really happy to have made it to the Piazza on time and actually see the prova. It wasn’t very long, but it was still exciting. The mortaretto which is the shot they fire to signal the start of the race or change of event was super loud as I was right next to it, and this time the Pantera horse was quite agitated so it took four tries to line up the horses behind the mossa and start the fake race. Bruco won this time, followed by Giraffa. And then the contradaioli invaded the pista and started chanting and following their fantini and cavalla back to their contrada. The horses are such an important thing because according to the rules, the fantino can be changed up to the day of the race but the horse cannot, so there is a person called the barbaresco who literally spends the four days between the assignment of the horses to the race by the horse – a sort of horse bodyguard!
After the prova I went back home and it then started to rain and didn’t stop all day so the prova in the evening was cancelled (another reason why I was happy I’d gone to the morning one, because the mud of the pista meant the Saturday morning one was cancelled too (there are six leading up to the actual race – Thursday afternoon, Friday morning and evening, Saturday morning and evening and Sunday morning). I wanted to go to the gym but instead I decided to cook in hopes that the rain would stop. It didn’t happen so after cooking I went to the gym anyway which was very empty. I was completely soaked on my way back home though, even after making a run for it! So I went straight into the shower and then had lunch and finished the season of OITNB with Dan which was insane! Each season just gets more surreal than the previous one… I then decided to nap for a bit before getting ready to go to the Final Erasmus Party at Essenza. It was supposed to be a pool party but since it was raining all day they did it indoors. I met with Vero, Simay and Megan in Piazza del Sale and we took the bus to reach Casetta. Fortunately, there was an ESN guy in the bus who led the way because we had no idea where we were going – Vero and I had gone to the place for the Secret Party but we’d arrived and left in a navetta leaving in the middle of the dark of the night, so we had no actual idea of where the place was… We eventually reached at around half eight. The cena was meant to start at 8 but everybody was waiting outside because it wasn’t ready yet. The disorganization was real – most of the Erasmus students were Spanish and very, very drunk at that stage and we were quite hungry. We had to wait for like an hour until we were finally let inside and the buffet dinner was utter carnage as all the drunk people wanted to eat as much as they could and we were also quite hungry. We managed to eat a lot of carbs which was much needed and then we were feeling better. Vero did her makeup in the toilets and we made the clever decision of putting up a ‘guasto’ sign on the only clean toilet to try to keep it clean throughout the night, and then we went back to the party. They’d started playing music but weren’t selling drinks until 11 and there was still an hour to go so we danced a bit and hung out outside until we managed to get some drinks. We had a fun night; especially when the party was open to everybody. Sonia and the British aupair girl came too so we danced together and we saw a lot of people we knew. As per usual, a great night with great people and funny Erasmus stories to tell. Megan and I made it to the ESN picture, repping the UK in the sea of Spaniards! And we left on the 4:30 bus back to Siena, reaching my house in the mist as the sun was coming out. I was absolutely knackered!
On Saturday I was hungover so I spent the morning cocooned in my bed and drinking water until I felt a lot better. I took a shower and ran some errands, still feeling quite crap and thinking I might have caught a cold because of the temperature changes since I was feeling cold and my head was killing me… I prepared the bag for the Palio the next day and started packing for the Industrial Triangle trip with Megan and then met her at 6 on the Piazza for the Quinta Prova or Prova Generale. There were a lot of people so we were in the Mossa area but not near the fence. Fortunately, it is on one of the raised sides of the Piazza so we could see anyway. It took a while to start off as they, again, had trouble lining the horses up but this time it was the Aquila horse that won, without the fantino who fell off mid-race, followed by Bruco. I then came back home and relaxed before going over to Megan’s to meet with her and Vero for Vero’s last night. It was a nightmare to reach her house because Civetta had closed off Banchi di Sopra for their cena generale – all the running contradas had their own cena before the big day- and so I had to divert and go around the long way. I eventually got there and we went to the Piazza which was full of people! Literally, had never seen the Piazza so busy before! Simay joined us and so did Sonia and another aupair girl and then we walked around – abbiamo fatto un giro- and ended up in Bellavista but since it was full of creeps we barely lasted two songs in there. We slowly made our way back and had to say good-bye to Vero who left the following morning. It’s sad that she’s not here anymore, but we will see each other soon at home xx
Finally, on Sunday the 2nd was the actual Palio. There was a morning mass for the fantini and then a last prova but I slept through all of that. I got up at around 11 and made some pancakes for breakfast before getting ready and packing my bag for the day. I met Megan in the Piazza at around half two, no bags checked (yay for Italian security) and we went straight to the fence by the mossa. We were so lucky with the location! We ended being second row behind the fence, with a great view of the fantini and horses and the Passeggiata Storica. The shade arrived around 15 minutes after us, sparing us from the sunburns and need to drink a lot of water, and we watched the Piazza fill up and had a packed lunch. They went round the Piazza wetting the tufo with a hose and completely drenched us and we ended up being covered in mud but fortunately we dried up quite quickly. Also, there was a slight breeze and it was nowhere near as hot as it has been over the past weeks, so we were very fortunate! Ody came by for a bit and we spent our time chatting and spotting people in the crowd. They closed the Piazza earlier than expected and around 5pm was the corsa a cavallo of the police, which is a tradition. It was a much needed piece of entertainment, ngl. At around 5:30pm was the start of the Passeggiata Storica which was one of the best things of the day. We saw all the contradas parade by, with their respective fantino and cavallo, as well as the flag displays and even the contradas which were not running. Everybody was wearing the traditional medieval attire with wigs and tights and all, and there was a lot of drumming, of course! We also got to see the symbols of the contradas that don’t exist anymore like snake and orso, along with the Palio and silver plate on the carriage. It was absolutely amazing! It took like 2hrs, but every minute was worth it!
After that came the horses, at around half seven. The Palio this year was absolute madness. The Tartuca horse, which was being ridden by the most experienced fantino, would not calm down so they spent a whole hour trying to line up the horses behing the mossa, Torre going first and Onda as rincorsa. The moment when they pulled out the order of the horses was so solemn, the whole Piazza was silent! We fortunately had some guys nearby who knew what was happening and were explaining it to us, because it got to a point when we couldn’t see anything. They did two false starts in order to try to calm down the horse and even brought in the barbaresco, but nothing would do it. It kept crashing onto the fences and ended up hurting its leg, so after a long deliberation, the jury decided Tartuca would not run the Palio. We nearly thought it would be delayed until the next day, which wouldn’t have been great. So after an hour and a half, at 9 the Palio was run. It was so, so exciting! Aquila and Giraffa leading the way, the Torre fantino falling off the horse,… Eventually, Giraffa crowned itself victor and then it was madness. The spectators flooded the pista and flags were being waved and tears were being shed. The Giraffa flags started being waved around and the contradaioli got the Palio and followed their fantino and horse back to their contrada. Honestly, it was such a stressful, tiring and long but exciting and unforgettable event! I will never forget it!
Once it was done I made my way home, which took forever because the exit to the Piazza was basically a person at a time through the Porticos, and got to mine at around quarter past ten. I took a much needed shower and had dinner before joining Megan at Bar del Corso and going to Giraffa for the celebrations. All the contradaioli were out with their flags and scarves, parading the Palio along the streets and serving free wine – it was madness! Half of the Siena student population was also there, of course. Megan and I ended up hanging out with Emilio and a couple of his friends and walking around Piazza. I said good-bye to Ody who left the following morning and we ended up by Bibo, getting some pizza to round off the night. Such an eventful day that I’ll never forget!
As I’m writing this on the Monday I can tell you I slept in this morning and was woken up at midday by the Giraffa drums. I’ve been home packing for the trip tomorrow and went to the gym, but I’ve been feeling quite under the weather today and have barely managed to finish writing this up, so unfortunately I will be delivering you this post with the photos (which I haven’t even touched) when I come back to Siena in the weekend. Right now I need to sleep otherwise tomorrow I will not be feeling great, hope you understand. Too many emotions and stress have worn me out!
Ci sentiamo presto!