It started with the rhythmic chant flooding my ears then slowly, but somehow all at once, it turned into silence, a crowd of thousands, still. Well, if I was going to be completely honest, it started with me running in the hopes of catching the train that was seconds away from leaving. It almost ended the same way too, but I’ll get to that later.
My train pulled into the station sending a wave of second thoughts. What had I gotten myself into? How would I find my friend in a country where the street signs were in a different language? While I had heard about the Palio di Siena, the extent of my knowledge was this: it’s a horse race that happens twice a summer in which the 17 Contradas, districts, of Siena compete for a banner that is then hung with pride in the winning district. While I usually tend to overthink things, my brain reminded me how much I had forgotten to overthink for this trip. Thankfully, I didn’t have much time to let my mind wander before I spotted my friend, Hannah.
Once catching the bus into town, we had just enough time to buy a flag and make it to the parade. With the colors of il Lupa, the wolf, draped around my shoulders I followed the beating of the drums. All my previous worries fled, as men dressed in medieval attire marched down the piazza. I followed suit with the locals, climbing on top of a statue to get a better view. I caught my breath, struggling to take in the culture that engulfed me, locals were adorned in all different colors from their Contrada, clapping and cheering as their flags flew through the air.
The flag of il leocorno, the unicorn, whizzed by us as we made our way to lunch. Paninis in hand, it was time for a decision to be made: watch from the gate or make our way to the middle and risk missing the last train. Ultimately, we decided that missing the train wouldn’t be that bad, as then we’d have an extra night in Siena, and with two hours allotted for the horses to take three laps around the track, we felt sure we would have enough time to catch the train.
“Tartaruga, al tuo posto,” the announcer called out for what felt like the millionth time. It had been a half hour past the time the race was scheduled to begin. As it turns out, the horse from the Tartaruga Contrada wasn’t concerned with the possibility of us missing our train. In fact, he seemed rather amused by the idea as he stayed just far enough away from the starting line. “Tartaruga,” I threatened, “if we miss the train I’m sleeping in your stable.” And as if he understood me, the race began. The thumping of horses’ hoofs filled the stand and flags waved in the air. A smile stretched across my face, as I joined in. It didn’t even matter that my jockey had already fallen off, I was caught up in it all. Three laps later and il Drago, the dragon, was crossing the finish line. With that, cheers and neighborhood songs filled the streets, and we hopped on the last train back to Florence with minutes to spare.
If you’re bummed that you missed it don’t be, the next one is August 16, 2018! But before you pack your bags here’s a bit of advice:
Wear Comfortable shoes
You may want to look stylish, but you will be standing a lot, especially if one of the competing horses decides to pull a Tartaruga.
Buy a flag
It’s always more fun when you have someone to cheer for. What better way to connect to the event then waving your flag? You can also wear them as scarfs, bracelets, and headbands. Flags go for around 10 Euros and are sold by vendors scattered around the streets.
Watch the Parade
Before the race, members of each Contrada march through the heart of Siena, beating on drums and twirling their flags. Don’t be afraid to immerse yourself in the local culture. Cheer along with everyone, get excited, after all, it is a once in a lifetime experience, don’t waste it.
Go to the middle
What better way to be part of the action then to be where the horses run around you. Even better, it’s free. Make sure to get there and get a spot before the gates close!
Make sure to Eat and Use the Bathroom Ahead of Time
The race can last a long time, and once you enter the middle, you can’t get out until it ends. So make sure to take care of business ahead of time so you can focus and enjoy the race.