Palio 101

It occurs to me that I’ve mentioned Siena and its Palio horse race in previous blog posts, but I haven’t described it or the contrada neighborhoods (and my connection with them) in detail yet. The next several days won’t make much sense to readers without some context, so here goes.

A “contrada” is somewhat of a mix between a family and a neighborhood or district. The concept is perhaps best known in Siena, where seventeen contrade (the plural of contrada) have been in place for centuries. (There were many more previously, but the current roster of 17 has been in place since 1729.) The contrada is like an extended family; you’re born into a contrada, and many major cultural or family events are held in your contrada.

Moreover, these contrade are often pitted against each other. Think: Montague vs. Capulet in Romeo and Juliet. These can range from friendly rivalries (the same way you might have a good-natured rivalry with the a competing sports team) to actual bitter feuds.

Streets in Siena are often lined with flags showing which contrada the neighborhood is in. (This gets really interesting on streets where one sign is the end of one contrada’s territory and the beginning of another’s.)

Drago streets at night

Twice each year, ten of the seventeen contrade compete in Il Palio, a horse race inside the Piazza del Campo town square. The city will bring in literally tons of dirt and cover up the square, creating a ring that the horses will race around three times, and the horse who finishes first wins the Palio for its contrada.

There’s a lot more detail to go into — about the selection of which contrade participate each time, about how the horses are chosen and matched to the contrade, and about the rules for starting and finishing the race. There’s just too much to get into in a short blog post, but definitely Google it to learn more.

The Piazza del Campo, crammed full of people for the Palio race

People in Siena take their affiliation very seriously, and indeed during the Palio weeks you’ll see people everywhere wearing a colorful scarf (called a fazzoletto) around their neck, showing the colors and coat of arms of their contrada. It’s an easy way to see who is representing each contrada, sort of like sports fans wearing jerseys of their team out to a game, but much more serious.

You might still be wondering, though, what my obsession is with the Contrada del Drago in particular. Well, our hotel last year was in Drago (the dragon) territory, so we decided that we’d cheer for Drago. Sure enough, the Drago jockey started out in the lead from the first few moments, and held on to it for the entire three laps.

Drago won the July 2nd Palio last year, and we were beyond thrilled. Though we had only just discovered that there even was a Drago contrada, we felt an affiliation with it as our “home team” and therefore we celebrated its victory. Indeed, our house includes a framed fazzoletta from Drago, a stone crest of the Drago symbol, and even a framed newspaper announcement of the winning jockey’s photo.

The contrade and the Palio are absolutely fascinating, and they’re probably what Siena is best known for by most people. Do some Googling if you want to learn more, and get ready for several more posts from me this week about Palio-related stuff.

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