Siena, a little gem in a pink-red brick setting, located in the heart of Tuscany. Every year, for several centuries, the Palio has been held there in the purest tradition, the most famous horse race and the most ritualized in the world. The two races, held respectively on July 2 and August 16 in honor of the Virgin Mary, last only a few minutes, but are of rare intensity. The Palio, much more than three laps of the track, is a real institution where tradition, religion, festive fervor and above all a strong attachment to the city mingle. Are you ready ? Go!
Siena and its contrade
Siena, a preserved medieval town, surrounded by gentle Tuscan hills, offers you, through its winding and sloping alleys, architectural treasures. Piazza del Campo, the nerve center of the city where the Palio takes place, has remained famous for its inclined plane and its scallop shape; the Palazzo publico, current town hall, from which rises the imposing Tower of Mangia, which overhangs a pool of ocher tiles; the Duomo, entirely covered with bands of white and black marble, the two emblematic colors of the city. Siena is also a very particular territorial organization, based on contrade, neighborhoods. Each of these districts, seventeen in number and whose definitive limits were set in 1729, has its church, its patron saint, its square, its fountain and especially its eponymous animal totem: aquila (eagle), giraffa (giraffe) ), leocorno (unicorn), chiocciola (snail) ... Each contrada is a kind of "small homeland" with its people and its territory. It has its own government, elected every two years, which defines the rights and duties of each contradaiolo (inhabitant of the district) and organizes the functioning of the district. Each individual is thus fully integrated into the large (re) united family that is the neighborhood. The Sienese will tell you that he is first and foremost a contradaiolo. Baby, he was baptized by the priest and by the person in charge of the contrada with the water of the fountain. As a child, he played with the barberi, small balls in the colors of the seventeen districts. As an adult, he has solemnly received the initiation, the rite by which he acquires the right to vote. This strong attachment, this love (bordering on fanaticism), for the contrada gave rise to the Palio, THE city festival, which reflects the territorial and historical unity of Siena, while revealing the alliances and enmities between the neighborhoods. Attending the Palio is therefore the opportunity to discover Siena as it is, with its soul, its dialect and its inhabitants, passionate and fervent defenders of their traditions and their neighborhood.
A very Italian passion
Palio comes from the Latin word pallium, which designates a rectangular-shaped silk standard. In the Middle Ages, it was the reward at tournaments and horse races. The first allusion to the Palio of Siena dates back to the 2th century, where it already seemed to be a well-established tradition. The horse race was organized alla lunga, that is, through the streets of the city and without a jockey. It was not until the middle of the 16th century that the Palio was run alla tonda (in circles), in the piazza del Campo and with a fantino (jockey). Around the same time, the Palio turns into two Palii: a first race takes place on July XNUMX in honor of the Virgin of the Basilica of Provenzano and a second, on August XNUMX, the day after the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. The Palio is therefore above all a religious festival celebrating Mary, patron saint of Siena. It is also a "disinterested" race, the winning contrada winning "only" the silk standard, hand painted by a renowned artist. But make no mistake, this piece of rag, as the Sienese like to call it, represents much more: it is the honor and pride of the entire contrada that is at stake. The Palio arouses unbridled enthusiasm and provokes the most extreme reactions: cries, tears, collective hysteria, elation, feeling of injustice, desire for revenge. The race actually lasts more than a few minutes: it thrills the Sienese who wait, hope and prepare throughout the year.
Preparations, rites and celebrations
The two official races take place on July 2 and August 16, but pagan and religious rites and festivities begin three days before. They are roughly identical for both Palii. You will be able to immerse yourself in this very special atmosphere where the tension, the frenzy and the joy will crescendo until D-Day. First of all, out of the seventeen districts of the city, only ten will participate: they are drawn to the comes out every year for each of the two Palii. The heart of the città, the piazza del Campo, turns into a racetrack: 400 m of land, which we have groomed with the patience of a goldsmith, form the ring of the track, steps are leaned against the facade of the buildings surrounding the square. The barberi (horses) have been selected and prepared at length. On the fantini side, in order to avoid any cheating, the riders are not from Siena, but generally from Sardinia, Sicilian or from Lazio. Paid at a high price, we compare them to mercenaries for whom Palio rhymes with euros. Three days before the race, the tratta takes place: the selected horses (about thirty) pass in front of the mayor and the race judges, who only retain ten. Subsequently, a draw will assign a horse to each contrada. During this day, you can visit the museums of each contrada, which exhibits the relics and other objects of past Palii (reservation required) or admire the works of art and votive offerings present in the seventeen oratori (the local churches ). At the start of the evening, the prima prova is organized, the first test for horses on the track: you can attend it from the center of the square or from the stands (seats are reserved at least six months in advance). The countdown is now on. Two days before the race (June 30 or August 14), the second and third tests take place. On the afternoon of August 14, you can follow the procession of "candles and cens": the Sienese religious community and the contrade go to the Duomo to pay homage to Our Lady, protector of the city. A religious ceremony not to be missed if you manage to enter the cathedral. Finally, on the penultimate day, after the fourth and fifth trials, each neighborhood organizes huge banquets in the middle of the streets. If you want to be one of the thousand to two thousand guests (per neighborhood!) And taste the euphoria, you can book by contacting the headquarters of each contrada.
" Show no mercy ! "
Finally, the long-awaited day has arrived. The bells of the Torre del Mangia ring out loud and remind everyone that it is Palio day. The fantini are still entitled to two final tests. They will then receive, as well as their horses, the blessing of the parish priest of the district they represent ... An intense moment where the profane and the sacred mingle. The fateful moment is further postponed by a parade in the purest tradition of the Middle Ages: each contrada and the horses parade in sumptuous costumes through the streets of the city center before making a triumphal entry into the piazza del Campo. A gendarme then gives each jockey a blackjack whip in order to stimulate the horse, but above all to hamper the opponents during the race. The Palio is a tough, aggressive race, where anything goes. The tension is at its height, it is the moment of the mossa, of the departure: the horses are placed between two ropes by a new draw. The mossiere (or starter) then lowers the rope and off we go for three laps (about a thousand meters) and barely two minutes of ecstasy and violence. The turns are very tight, the track slips: the jockeys fall, sometimes it's the horses, and nasty injuries are not uncommon. The Palio is a violent race, the goal is to win, but above all to beat the other contrade. The first horse to arrive, with or without a rider on the back, wins the Palio. A jubilant cacophony then seizes the place which vibrates under the howls of joy or disappointment. The winning contradaioli receive the Palio and go (including horse!) To the Basilica of Provenzano (during the Palio in July) or the Duomo (for the Palio in August) to sing the Te Deum of thanks. Therefore, the losing contrade will have to bear the weight of a new defeat while the winning district will organize in September the great victory banquet, where thousands of Sienese will participate ... without forgetting their four-legged champion installed at the table of honor! The Palio, lo si vive davvero, “we live it body and soul”.
Where to sleep ?
As you can imagine, the Palio being a world famous event, it is advisable to book several months in advance (even the stables are full during this period!). It is true that the city has relatively few hotels and pensions in relation to the number of tourists ... And what's more, it's expensive!
- Albergo Tre Donzelle, via delle donzelle, 5. Tel. : 0577-280-358. Count 60 € for a double room (without breakfast). Spacious rooms, impeccable sanitary facilities.
- Also find other accommodation availability ...
Where to eat ?
Ah! The delights of Siena and Tuscany ... Lovers of good food will delight their taste buds! Those in a hurry (or the most broke!) Will stop to eat gigantic slices of pizza in one of the many pizzeria.
- Osteria Boccon del Prete, via san Pietro, 17. Tel. : 0577-280-388. Close to the Duomo. Count a maximum of € 15 for a typical Tuscan meal, made with fresh produce. Excellent value.
- Drogheria Manganelli, via di Città, 71-73. Phone. : 0577-28-00-02. Without a doubt, the most beautiful and oldest grocery store in Siena where you will find local and regional specialties for an improvised picnic.
- Palio Info : www.sienapalio.com or www.ilpaliodisiena.com.
- tourist Office, piazza del Campo, 56. Tel. : 0577-28-05-51, Internet: www.terresiena.it. Open Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 19 p.m. and Sundays and holidays from 9 a.m. to 15 p.m.
How to get there ?
Paris-Florence flights are offered by various airlines including Air France and Alitalia. Then all you have to do is connect Florence to Siena by train (about 1 hour 30 minutes) or by bus (1 hour 15 to 2 hours).
The low-cost company Easyjet also offers Paris-Pisa flights. The train will then take you to Siena in about two hours.