This last Saturday was a big day for Siena. The first Saturday of July for approximately 700 years Siena has been holding the Palio, a horse race.
The city center of Siena is composed of 17 neighborhoods called as Contrade. The contrade were originally based around the different trade guilds that existed in Siena (textiles, metalworkers, ect). The contrade were also divisions of the watch from the city wall and smaller units that comprised the defense of the city. So today the contrade are mostly a social and historical thing. Each contrade has a flag, a patron saint, a museum, a church, and a fountain in the city were babies are baptized into the contrade.
In reality the actual Palio lasts about 2-3 minutes, but the preparations are a bigger deal than Christmas and the Superbowl combined. There is a lottery to choose 10 of the 17 contrade to run, a showing of all the potential horses, a lottery where 10 chosen horses are assigned to the 10 running contrade, and there are several trial races. The night before the Palio each contrada holds a huge dinner that lasts til at least midnight.
So that brings us to the Saturday of the Palio.. Each contrade that is running has a ceremony where they bless their horse and their jockey. Then there is a historical parade where all the contrade process thru town in historical costume. After that we shuffled thru the crowded streets to join 60,000 other people inside the piazza for the actual race.
During the race 4 of the horses ended up losing their jockey’s and the Jockey from the Bruco (caterpillar) contrada was carried off the track with his femur broken in two places and a broken arm after he hit the flag pole on the corner of the arena after taking the curve too fast, fell from his horse and was trampled by three other horses.. dramatic..yes, but totally not out of the norm for the Palio.
So in the end the Oca contrada (goose contrada) won the Palio with the poor Bruco horse coming into a riderless 2nd place. (PS-a horse without a rider can still win as long as they still are wearing their bridal with the contrade colors)
After the Palio the winning contrada parties the entire night and for about the next 2 weeks. So last night after the Palio and dinner we wandered through the Oca contrada and I felt a profound “lacking the sense of taking part”
Being part of the Palio made me realize more than anything else what makes the people of Siena who they are. It was an incredible weekend and I felt so privileged to observe it, but it made me feel more like an outsider than not speaking fluent italian or wearing chacos instead of stilettos has. I think I may have come to Italy thinking that I would easily assimilate myself into the culture, but this weekend showed me that the Italian culture in Siena is something that people are born into and it is a way of being that cannot be fully understood, only appreciated by an outsider.
PS- for some reason I’m having trouble posting my pictures with this internet, so they will be here soon!