Prepping for the Palio of Siena

It’s that time again.

I’m going back to Italy, back to Siena, where I spent six weeks last year at a language school. I plan on continuing my intensive studies there but my first item of business is experiencing the Palio.  This became a bucket list item last December. The Palio is the city’s historic, traditional, crazy, wild horse race.  I wrote on this blog in January that you could expect to see me in the Piazza del Campo in the days leading up to the July 2 race.  I am a woman of my word.

To prepare for this stupendous week, I did some research, mostly by reading a few terrific books and watching “Palio,” the 2015 film by Cosima Spender.

In “Seven Seasons in Siena. My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance Among Tuscany’s Proudest People,” (Ballantine Books, 2011), author Robert Rodi recounts his seven trips going to Siena for the Palio and other times of the year to learn what it means to be a Senese. This is a wonderful, colorful read. I laughed out loud more than a few times. His good friend and author Dario Castagno, a Tuscany guide and Palio expert ( provided plenty of guidance and support, leading up to Robert being adopted by Dario’s contrada, il Bruco (caterpillar). Cheers to you Robert!

I read three of Dario’s books: “Too Much Tuscan Sun” (The Globe Pequot Press, 2004) “Too Much Tuscan Wine (Betti, 2012) and “A Day in Tuscany” (The Globe Pequot Press, 2006) to learn more about Siena and the race. The anecdotes about life in Chianti and the many colorful characters I met in those pages were an added bonus. Dario’s descriptions of the Chianti countryside, his “office,” if you will, are enough to make anyone (read: me) just pick up and go there. I look forward to meeting Dario next week and continuing my Palio “studies.”

I also read “Living the Palio” by Thomas W. Paradis  (iUniverse, 2014) which, like Rodi, offered a playbook on enjoying the Palio, meeting the locals and getting tickets to the contrada dinners the night before the race.  He also delves into Siena’s geographic layout and the Seneses’ ideal of community. I asked Paradis in an e-mail if there were anything in the U.S. that compares to the passion of the Senese during the Palio.

“There may be something that compares to the Palio in the U.S. in terms of passion, but I would not know what it is.  A distant second to the Palio is a ‘super fan’ of a sports team, either college or pro ball of some kind.” He added that even as a super fan, it’s not the same intensity.  Paradis will be in Siena when I’m there with a group of students from Butler University, where he works. I look forward to meeting him.

The Palio and Siena books I read this winter. I recommend all of them. The canvas artwork on top is by Siena artist Loretta Del Lungo.

In addition to the books, I watched, downloaded and watched a few more times Cosima Spender’s 2015 film “Palio” with and without the subtitles, thank you very much.  In fact, I haven’t watched it in a few weeks and it might be time for a refresher. Watch the fabulous trailer here:

And of course I was kept updated on all things Palio by my friend and Palio mentor Mauro, who I wrote about on this blog in January. Mauro’s contrada Torre (tower) won the July 2 Palio last year.

One thing he and Dario both reminded me of is the Senese don’t gear up for the Palio just around the time of the race. “The Palio is 365 days a year,” Dario wrote in a message. “We always have meetings and assemblies no matter the time of year.”

A quick refresher: Siena has 17 contrade, or districts/neighborhoods. Ten of those race in the Palio, held in the main piazza in the city, the Piazza del Campo. The seven that do not race in the July 2 race will automatically get a berth the next year. The same holds true for the second race held on August 16 race. They are separate races.

To fill the outstanding three spots, there is a lottery held in the Piazza, which happened at the end of May. Now the field is set and next up is the horse selection, a random draw done on June 29. Since Torre did not get picked to race, Mauro said that doesn’t mean the contrada members are calm. On the contrary; their rival, Oca, (goose) is running and the focus will be on keeping them from winning.

After the horse is assigned a contrada, there are all sorts of machinations, strategies and pay-offs  that happen among the contrada members and between contrade.

Mauro said the city is filled with the sounds of the drummers practicing for the “corteo storico,” the procession of drummers and acrobatic flag bearers that takes place ahead of the race. I got a taste of it last December during the Feast of San’Ansano (see blog post from December).

Contrada members
Members of the Band of the Town Hall of Siena in pre-Palio festivities.

I’m going to keep an eye on the four contrade that have gone the longest without winning: Chiocciola (Aug 16, 1999), Nicchio (August 16 1998) Aquila (July 3 1992 – race was postponed because of rain) and Lupa (July 2, 1989)

Corteo storico
The Band of the Town Hall of Siena.

One of the highlights that I am hoping to see is the blessing of the horse before the race. This is done in every church of the participating contrade.  Everyone is silent, the horse is walked in and the priest of that contrada gives a blessing, ending with, “Go and come back a winner!”

I have lofty goals of being near the outline of the Piazza to get a good shot of the race, maybe even a video. I want to watch the blessing, to meet and hang with wonderful crazy Senese who are sure their contrada is going to win. Stay tuned for daily reports. The adventure continues!

I belong in Italy.

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