Il Palio di Siena, 2 luglio 2019

Today was the day that Siena has been building up to for weeks now… the Palio race! We had a full afternoon of Palio-related activities, so let’s dig right in.

It started with the blessing of the horse in each contrada that was participating in today’s race. Delightfully, my Italian language immersion school (which I’m beginning next week) is located right in the heart of Drago Territory, and they invited me to join them at the blessing of the Drago horse right down the street. It was an outdoor ceremony, with the Catholic priest from the local Drago church blessing the horse with some holy water and prayer.

The Drago procession arriving at the church

I didn’t take photos of the blessing itself because I didn’t want to be rude — this was literally a church service, after all — but I can tell you, that horse was having none of it. He bucked and tried to back away several times, particularly when the priest flicked holy water at him three times. (To be fair, I probably would have, too.) Still, eventually the deed was done, and the priest gave the traditional command: go, and return victorious.

Next we went to the cathedral to watch the procession of all of the participating contrade come throw their flags and march to their drums. Obviously, the Drago one was the only one I paid much attention to.

From there, it was time for a quick bite (pizza, naturally) and a beer to steel ourselves for the upcoming event… soon enough, we were clamoring our way through a massive crowd to get into the piazza for the race.

This blue banner is the prize that the winning contrada will take with them

The ten horses and jockeys come out, and a lottery is drawn to determine the order of the horses. The first drawn are closest to the inside of the track, which means they have slightly less distance to cover… but the tenth jockey is the one who decides when the race will start, because when he crosses the start line everyone else is allowed to begin. Today, though, the jockeys weren’t the main attraction, because the horses were not in the mood for it.

As the horses were starting to line up, the Drago horse threw his rider off. (Remember that these races are conducted without saddles, so staying on with an agreeable horse is impressive enough, but if that horse wants you off, you’re getting off.) There were probably two shocked minutes of worry before the crowd saw the jockey get back on and everything (including my breathing) resumed.

At the start line itself, the first few horses kept fighting with each other, biting at each other’s faces and even at some of the jockeys. (One rider took a hard bite in the leg, it appeared… which I’m told is not pleasant.) There was even one “false start” when some horses got overeager and started before the tenth one made his move, so they all had to circle around the track and get back in formation. Eventually, though, the horses were behaved for a long enough moment that the tenth jockey made a run for the line, and everyone was off and gone.

The race itself only lasts about 75-90 seconds. It’s three laps around the piazza, and then we’re done! Yes, that’s quite a lot of buildup for something so brief. I started to try to figure out how to describe everything, and then I realized, YouTube has me covered… here’s the race:

It was certainly an exciting race. Despite having been thrown early, the Drago rider did very well, holding on to the top three and coming close to seizing the lead toward the end. The “Giraffe” contrada was victorious, though only at literally the last second.

Look how close the finish was!

Now, normally at the end of these, the crowd gets a little wild. Often there are some shouting and shoving, and even some fists flying — there was quite the angry mob last year! This year, the crowd was much less violent, though very excited nonetheless.

I’d promised my husband that I was coming home with a Drago tattoo if they won again, because that clearly meant that I was their good luck charm. Alas, no new tattoo for me, but I can say that it was a fun experience the second time around also. (I’m hoping there’ll be a third time at some point in my future, and I’m confident that I’ll be much better able to understand what the hell everyone is talking about by then!)

On that note, it’s been a tiring day, and it’s time to go to sleep… with the windows open, and the joyful songs of the victorious Imperiale Contrada della Giraffa echoing throughout the city.

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