Have you ever seen The Quantum of Solace? You know, the James Bond film that came after Casino Royale and before Skyfall… whereas many fans of 007 didn’t seem to enjoy the film I absolutely loved it. The opening sequences anyway, because they were filmed in the beautiful Tuscan hilltop city of Siena. When I was a student I spent a whole year studying at the Università degli Studi di Siena and fell in love with the city’s medieval charm. The red bricks and rooftops that Bond leaps over and the colourful pageantry of the city’s bi-annual horse race that he runs through both bring back happy memories of the thousands of hours I spend wandering the narrow streets and watching the locals re-enact their centuries-old rituals.
The old walled part of the city is split into 17 contrade or districts. Each contrada has its own church, colours, flags, emblem, clubhouse and ceremonial fountain. Sounds pretty serious, doesn’t it? We haven’t even mentioned the rivalry yet. Anyone with even a passing interest in professional sport will be aware of the classic battles between Barcelona and Real Madrid or Tottenham and Arsenal – the contrade of Siena make these look petty. If you are born into a contrada, you never leave or join a different one. You can’t just change your colours because another contrada is more successful. If you fall in love with someone from a different contrada, you can be together, get married and have children – but when it’s Palio time, don’t be surprised to hear of families temporarily breaking in two and moving in with relatives back in their own contrada. Oh, and in case you still doubt the seriousness of it all, bear in mind that the night before the race, the horse running for a contrada is kept under lock and key in the local church to avoid any danger of cheating!
I’ve mentioned it a couple of times now, the Palio, but what is it and why does the whole year in Siena revolve around it? The word actually refers to a celebratory banner that’s created to celebrate a bareback horse race. This banner is given to the winning contrada and will most likely take pride of place in their clubhouse. Each year there are two races, one on 2 July and one on 16 August. Sometimes there has even been a third to celebrate a special occasion, like the turning of the century in 2000. The race dates back hundreds of years – after bull fighting was outlawed, people started organising buffalo or donkey races in the main square, then in 1656 the first modern Palio was run. The most successful contrada is Oca (the Goose), which has won 63 races, followed by Chiocciola (the Snail) with 51, and Tartuca (the Tortoise) with 46.
If you wander the streets of Siena on any given Sunday, you won’t go far before hearing the beat of drums or the sight of flags being tossed high into the air. The elaborate displays at the Palio don’t happen by chance – the proud Sienese who take part spend hundreds of hours practicing. A few weeks before the race is the drawing of the contrade – only 10 out of 17 contrade take part in a race, which means seven get left out each time. To keep things fair, the seven who didn’t run last time are automatically selected to run, then three from the remaining 10 are randomly drawn to complete the runners. The tension in the city’s Campo, or main square, is electric on the day of the draw. Different contrade have their own area in the shell-shaped square, and each group stands with their colours on show facing the town hall as the draw is made – members of the three lucky contrade go wild in celebration. You’d think they’d won the prize not the right to race for it!
On race day the city is buzzing – full of tourists flocking to get a glimpse of the race and locals hoping their contrada will triumph! While the wealthy buy seats around the side of the Campo, most tourists end up in the centre of the square. Here they spend hours under the blazing Tuscan sun waiting for the parades and race to start. I was incredibly lucky and was invited by friends-of-friends to attend the Palio with the noble contrada of Aquila. We spent time at the clubhouse before walking down the short distance to the main square, where we were let in just before everything started rather than having to wait with the masses. We were part of a big crowd all waving the yellow and black banners decorated with an eagle. If you watch the three laps of the Campo on YouTube, it is over in a flash… when you are there in the square, time goes in slow motion. For a good part of the race Aquila were winning, we were all going crazy, and the promise of the biggest party of our lives felt like it was in touching distance! Rumour has it that the contrada would connect a barrel of wine to their ceremonial fountain and party into the early hours if they won. Sadly it wasn’t to be. The Aquila horse was overtaken – and not just by any old horse. The winner was Pantera. The contrada of the panther, the contrada who dress in blue and red, the contrada who border Aquila… the contrada who are the nemesis of Aquila. From glorious victory so close you can taste the wine, to the crushing emptiness of defeat to your biggest rivals – my experience of the Palio was a roller-coaster of emotion that I will remember till my old age.
When you are in Siena there might not be a Palio on to watch in person, but it doesn’t mean you can’t explore the history and tradition that accompanies it. As I mentioned earlier, you may well bump into people practicing with flags or instruments in the streets. You can wander around the city looking for celebratory decorations hanging from the brick walls above – this might be flags, lighting or little porcelain plaques informing you which contrada you are in. In the little pottery shops that are dotted across the city you can purchase all kinds of Palio themed memorabilia, from little tiles for each contrada to figurines of jockeys riding their steeds to victory. My favourite contrada-themed activity is to roam the city looking for each of the ceremonial fountains. Back in 2006 when I lived there, I did this by wandering every street in the city and getting very lost – you can do the same, or if you prefer, you can use this handy Google map. Whatever you manage to see I am sure you will love the city, I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t!