Il Palio in Siena
Forget the Running of the Bulls in Pamplona, Spain--that's been taken over by wine-soaked American college boys and drunk Australians getting their kicks Hemmingway-style. Il Palio--probably the shortest horserace in the world--is the real deal. And it's a bare-backed race. Held on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August in Siena, Tuscany, Italy, the race and its pageantry looks the same as it must have 400 years ago, when they stated racing in the smallish main piazza called the Piazza del Campo. Before that, in the 1400s, the horses would scamper through town. When the race moved to the Campo, the small track only had room for 10 of the 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, to race at a time. The confusing arrangement of guaranteed spots and lottery draws keep a different blend of 10 of the 17 racing each time. Actually, it's even more confusing than this sounds: there is room only for 9 horses to line up on the track. The 10th horse lingers behind the lineup and starts the race while running an arc behind the pack. It's very confusing and a nightmare of timing to get all the horses together at the right time. In this race there are no starting gates. The joy of Il Palio is its timelessness. The only souvenirs being hawked are the banners of the 17 contrade. Each contrada has its own banner and its own rival. When all is said and done, one contrada losing is not as painful as that contrada's rival winning it all. Tears flow from the old and the young when this happens. The morning of each Palio starts with a practice run, followed by the blessing of the horses--in the church. It's considered good luck if the horse poops--in the church. The contrade are: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), Leocorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-Wolf), Nicchio (Shell), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Panther), Selva (Forest), Tartuca (Tortoise), Torre (Tower) and Valdimontone (Ram). And the winner this July 2 was...no, not just yet. The entire piazza goes berserk when the race starts. The whole race consists of 3 laps around the rim of the piazza and lasts less than a few minutes. A horse can lose it's rider and still win, as long as the horse still has the Contrada insignia on its head when it crosses the finish line. It only ends when the cannons fire, signaling the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place crossings, at which point the berserk factor goes way, way up. The winning horse is taken to a nearby church to have its hooves painted gold. Yep, gold. The party goes on all night. How can it not when you are celebrating medieval tradition that is still taken very seriously and the biggest winner is a horse with golden hooves? This year's golden pony was Oca: the goose. Here's to the golden goose. The August Palio is coming up, but I would never recommend that anyone visit Italy in August. Book your rooms early for next year--they're already going fast.
Tags: Il Palio , Siena , Tuscany , Italy
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