Horse racing is a wildly popular sport in Europe and has been for centuries. In Italy, the Il Palio in Siena is an event that dates back to medieval times when jockeys rode buffalos, and later donkeys, around the Piazza del Campo. In modern days, this exciting demonstration of bravery and horsemanship is a biannual event that takes place in early July and mid-August each year, drawing spectators from around the globe.
The Palio di Provenzano is the first of these two special races. It takes place on 2 July honoring the Madonna of Prvovenzano. The August race is the Palio dell'Assunta and is held on 16 August, the day following the Feast of the Assumption. Each event features ten bareback riders representing different city wards, or contrada.
The horses run on a dirt track laid around the Piazza del Campo. The race consists of three laps and typically takes less than 90 seconds to complete. The sharp turns make for exciting racing and several jockeys over the years have failed to finish after falling from their mounts. The victor's reward is a silk banner bearing the Virgin Mary's image, hand painted by a local artist.
Prior to the horse races, the town hosts a costume parade, called the Corteo Storico. This grand procession features hundreds of participants in traditional medieval costumes celebrating the culture and history of Siena. City trumpeters playing their silver trumpets along with other musicians of Palazzo supply the music for this highly choreographed procession, which includes an elaborate display of flag twirling.
A chariot, called the Carroccio, bears the silk Palio banner and is the parade's highlight as it delivers the flag to the judges stand accompanied by six knights and eight armed soldiers. Four oxen pull the Carroccio to close out the procession. Along with the winners flag, the chariot bears six trumpeters, a valet playing the Martinella, and the Balia, or flag bearer.
Obtaining tickets for this popular event can be a challenge, so travelers wishing to attend need to make arrangements as far in advance as possible. A number of travel companies offer tour packages to experience this historic and unique event. These packages include a guided walking tour and optional upgraded seating in a gallery adjacent to the Piazza del Campo. Visitors have the option of adding a variety of other activities to their travel package, including participation in one of the festive meals held after the trial runs and the main event. Others offer guided tours of various contrada museums or chapels and the opportunity to visit the rooms where the colorful costumes are stored between races. One of these tour operators offering tours for Il Palio is Festival Adventures.
This spectacular festival offers visitors a glimpse into the people of Siena and their culture and history like no other. It is an event that is steeped in tradition and the rivalry between the contrada is just as fierce today as it was many centuries ago. It is much more than just a horse race, which is what makes it one of the most celebrated events in all of Italy.
If you're looking for more great worldwide traditional festivals then check out FOMO Travel, who have heaps of Festival and Events Travel information.