Having spent the summer in southern Europe, I returned home with a profound understanding of the expression “Italian Stallion”. The stereotype of a confident, suavely charming, slightly and frequently over-the-top southern European male is alive and well – nowhere more so than in Italy. The expression “Italian Stallion” and everything in between – confidence, aggression, courage, pride and passion – surely has its origins in the twice-annual Palio di Siena horse race.
There is only one place to be
More than a mere race or sporting event, Palio di Siena is an institution and the highlight of the year in the picturesque hillside town of Siena in Tuscany. All of this was unbeknownst me when I boarded the slow train at Roma Tiburtina with my destination Florence, the Tuscan capital.
My trip was to review some Renaissance history, revisiting my good (marble) friend David and maybe making a trip to see the leaning tower of Pisa. The train ride was pleasant and a welcome break from the hustle and bustle of the train station. Reasoning the slow train would be less crowded on that Monday morning at the height of the summer tourist season, I found an almost empty carriage and made myself comfortable and awaiting the soothing quality of passing scenery.
Enter Lorenzo. Literally. Sitting down next to me rather than in the empty seat in front of me, I was already in search of my headphones – a universal sign of “do not disturb” – when he presented his hand and with a broad smile announced that he was Lorenzo and that he was on his way to his home town Siena to see ‘Il Palio’. The expression on his face told me I should be either impressed, congratulatory or Frightened.
History comes alive
Luckily, Lorenzo was not one to leave a lady in the dark and he quickly invited me to come along and experience Palio di Siena, which he explained is the twice-annual horseback race taking place on July 2 and August 16 in the Piazzo del Campo in the middle of Siena. I later learned that the central piazza has been used for public games such as pugna, jousting and bull fighting since the Middle Ages and that when bull fighting was banned in 1590, the contradas, or districts of Siena organised the races, which at the time were on buffalo back. Over the next couple of hundred years, the races were formalised and the number of contradas reduced to 17. Today only 10 contradas are allowed to compete due to safety reasons.
I decided my date with David would have to wait and got off the train in Siena with Lorenzo. Had I bothered to buy a travel guide I would have known finding a place to stay in Siena on the 1st of July is virtually impossible and had it not been for Lorenzo, whose brother had a spare room, I would have had to either fork out a week’s budget for a room at the Grand Hotel Continental, or sleep in the street. The two Palio di Siena races are based on the Catholic calendar. The July 2 race is held in the honour of Madonna of Provenzano while the August 16 race is held in honour of the Assumption of Mary. Whereas the religious aspects of the race are still present, today’s races are more about contradas rivalry and ritual for ritual’s sake. Il Palio, as the race is known to locals, is a four day affair and the days leading up to the the main race are packed with activities and preparations within the city’s 17 contradas, some of which last all year. Strategies are laid, horses doped, owners bribed and trials run. In the last couple of days, the action intensifies and it is not uncommon for brawls to take place between various contradas.
Let the games begin
The next day the Piazza del Campo was packed from the morning and the entire city buzzed with energy. Walking down to the piazza I noticed several streets were closed off and the city almost bursting at the seams with foreign and local tourists competing for space with contradas members who exercised complete monopoly of the majority of seating and standing areas around the track inside the piazzo. I finally managed to find a spot just as the last trial run had been completed and the space around me quickly closed in.
A canon was fired, prompting the crowds to go wild and nine horses were led into an area of the track between two ropes. We waiting for what seemed an eternity while the crowds almost hysterical until a tenth horse entered the arena and the track transformed into an inferno of hooves, dust and tails. All the day’s and year’s preparation culminated in less than two minutes of pure madness. Winning is one objective, preventing rivals from winning is another.
Having spent most of my life moving from place to place and never spending more than a couple of years in each destination, I can’t say I understand the sense of attachment or belonging that was displayed in front of me as the jockeys, clad in colourful costumes proudly representing their contradas, kicked and whipped each other and each other’s horses while the crowds roared. What I did understand however, was the origin of the expression “Italian Stallion”.
Siena is one of the oldest towns in Tuscany and is a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its architecture, museums and historic significance. Apart from the Palio di Siena, the town is widely known for its art, cuisine and picturesque old town.
- Terre di Siena (www.terresiena.it/index.php?lang=en) offers useful information and offers in various languages.
- Grand Continental Hotel Siena (www.grandhotelcontinentalsiena.com) is an architectural jewel located within the old walls of Siena. The building was a wedding gift from Pope Alexander VII to his niece Olimpia. The five star hotel has had an impressive list of guests including Andrea Bocelli and Daniel Craig.
- Piazza del Campo has served as the city’s principal public space since the Middle Ages and it is one of Europe’s greatest medieval squares. The edges are lined with cosy restaurants and cafes lending an excellent venue for people watching or just reading a good book.
- Nannini (www.guidonannini.it/eng/) is a 1909 bakery serving local favourites such as I Senesi, le torte and I cantucci. The shop is located in Via del Paradiso in Siena.