Why you should care

There’s pageantry and trickery, poetry and drama in the Palio di Siena, Italy’s most famous horse race. Here’s how you can enjoy the chaos.

Historic celebration or collective madness? That is the question. Twice a year in Siena, Italy, families and friendships are consumed by love, hate and rivalries. Pranks and fights divide the historic city quarters. The sacred coexists with the profane, the comedic with the tragic. The town is abuzz with fervency and trickery. All over a horse race. But the Palio di Siena isn’t just any horse race; it’s an all-consuming passion for Siena and its citizens.

It’s a script that William Shakespeare would have loved, but he died 16 years before the first edition in 1632.

Siena town center is divided into 17 historic contrade (districts), each with distinctive crests and colors. This becomes very important on July 2 and August 16 every year when the two races pit citizen against citizen in fierce competition. “People born and raised here consider their contrada a second home — a family — to defend unambiguously,” explains Jacopo Rossi, who was born in Siena and raised in Contrada dell’Onda. How can 54,000 residents suddenly despise each other? “You grow up learning to have fun with your neighbors, your rivals in the race,” he says. “But twice a year that camaraderie could become hate.”

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(Top) A participant in costume during the Corteo Storico pageant, a big event held before the race, at Siena’s Piazza del Campo Square. (Bottom) The jockey of Contrada Onda, Carlo Sanna (second from right), known as “Brigante,” and his horse Porto Alabe compete against Elias Manucci (far right), known as Turbine, and his horse Solo tue Due of Contrada Chiocciola.

Source (Top) Ronald C. Modra/Getty (Bottom) Filippo Monteforte/Getty

The race involves 10 horses with bareback riders and lasts no more than 90 seconds — just three laps around the Piazza del Campo. The winner receives no money or medals, simply the palio or drappellone (“the rag”), a silk banner painted by a new artist each year and kept in the contrada’s museum. And bragging rights, of course. “Every year the winner has a place in history,” says Claudio Lenzi, a journalist who was raised in Contrada dell’Onda. “That’s why the horse race is pure passion and a reason to live for us.”

Once you enter a contrada, you’re bound to it. It’s a never-ending brotherhood.

And with so much riding (literally) on the win, underhanded actions abound. “Bribery is the essence of Palio,” Lenzi says. “If a contrada has a losing horse it’s a tradition to sabotage the race.” He points to the Contrada della Torre (Tower) as an example: It won in 2005 after 44 years because all the rivals had been bribed. “That’s why alliances are important,” he says, adding that starting in 2015 police have been more actively involved in keeping the peace.

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(Top) A participant in costume during the Corteo Storico pageant before the race. (Bottom) A historical parade ride around the track is held prior to the trial race.

Source (Top) Ronald C. Modra/Getty (Bottom) Justin Setterfield/Getty

So if you don’t live in Siena and don’t have a contrada to root for? Take heart, because you can still get in on the action. Here are three ways an outsider can take part in this 400-year-old tradition of pageantry and fierce competition.

Spectator: Go to Siena just for the race and watch in the 20,000-strong crowd. However, stay in the fan-only zone and watch what you wear. Contrades show their allegiance with specific color combinations. Be on the safe side and wear white, gray or black. Also beware: There are no toilets.

Witness: Plan to stay for the whole week of Palio. This allows you to watch the preparation of Piazza del Campo (the floor is covered with a layer of tuff, a rock made of volcanic ash, to prevent horses slipping) and attend the trials and the draw, plus time to try to understand the race strategies (it’s complicated, trust me). Two key pieces of advice: Don’t take pictures of fights and plan to party with the winning contrada.

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The Palio di Siena is a colorful and chaotic affair — for both attendees and participants.

Source Awakenings/Getty

Become a lifetime member: A contrada is open to all, Lenzi explains, and welcomes newcomers from abroad. But there are stipulations: You must be an active volunteer and participant in the community — “Don’t share time and passion only twice a year.” This means helping out when the Palio di Siena isn’t happening. And once you enter a contrada, you’re bound to it. It’s a never-ending brotherhood. There’s even an initiation ritual: a secular baptism in the contrada’s public spring. This is serious business.

So whether you watch the spectacle from the sidelines or pledge lifelong allegiance to a contrada, participating in Italy’s most famous horse race is poetry clashing with extreme passion. Shakespeare would have approved.

Go There: Palio di Siena

Getting tickets to the event can be complicated. There is no global website or ticket office; it’s a private trade. Tickets for platforms and windows are sold by the owners of the spots — this can include hotels, restaurants, businesses and even family homes.

  • Piazza del Campo: Free (max 20,000 people)
  • Platforms: Prices range from €150 to €450 ($170 to $513) per seat
  • Windows: Prices range from €2,000 to €3,850 each ($2,280 to $4,390). There’s a maximum of four people per window.

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