words by Michelle Fabio

Every July 2 and August 16, the medieval Tuscan city of Siena becomes the site of a colourful, bareback horse race heard and seen around the world — and certainly around Piazza del Campo, the town’s centre square, which is covered with a layer of dirt to accommodate this centuries-old tradition.

Running in the race are 10 of Siena’s 17 Contrade, or districts: seven horses participate by right because they hadn’t competed in the previous race and three others are selected by drawing lots. Each Contrada has its own colours, emblem and coat of arms, and it is difficult to overstate the pride the contradaioli, residents of the Contrade, hold for their district.

In the days leading up the race, the city bursts with energy, culminating in a spectacular, colourful parade complete with medieval costumes and performances. With a loud boom, the race begins, and three times around the track (about 90 seconds) later, a winner is declared and given a palio, a painted silk banner created new for each race; the loser, by the way, is the second place Contrada—not the one that comes in last.

This YouTube video gives a great feel for the emotions involved in the Palio:

Siena’s Palio dates back to 1656 when the first race was run in honour of the Madonna di Provenzano, an apparition of the Virgin Mary who had appeared near houses belonging to Sienese military commander Provenzano Salvani.

If you haven’t bought tickets for one of the 33,000 seats for the August 16 race, you can always try to squeeze into the square, which fits another 28,000 standing.

For more information on the Palio, including a full list of the Contrade, check out IlPalio.org.