The Palio of Siena

Il Palio di Siena

Imagine being the spectator of an event that continues unscathed since the eve of time. Think of breathing in the scent of dust that rises into the air from beneath the hoofs of horses pawing the ground and of sensing the tension of the "contradaioli" (quarter dwellers) who crowd the bleaches set up in Piazza del Campo, the spectacular central square of Siena.
That's what the Palio is, not merely a tourist attraction, but an event that locals wait for all year round in mounting expectation for two dates: July 2nd and August 16th. 
The territory of Siena is parceled into 17 "Contrade" or "city quarters", the boundaries of which were established in 1729 by the Governor of Siena, Violante of Bavaria. Each year three of these contrade are chosen by lot and join the other 7 which instead are rightful participants of the race. These ten "teams" challenge one another in a race about 1 kilometer long, where the jockeys and their horses battle to cross the finish line in first place.
But celebrations do not end with the race, known as the "Carriera": the actual Feast unfolds over four intense days packed with events which keep the "contradaioli" busy in preparations all year long.
Some of the rules of the Palio date as far back as five centuries ago and at times are hard to understand for newbies. It is customary for participants to make agreements behind the scenes, a fact that makes their behavior all the more unintelligible. The rule which is by far the most surprising is that victory is assigned to the first horse to cross the finish line, even if it has been "scosso" or, in other words, if its rider has been "shaken off saddle".
The winning horse and jockey are carried in triumph and hailed as true heroes by the inhabitants of the contrada for whom they race, and celebrations continue throughout the night.
Each Contrada can be considered as an independent state, where power is upheld by a parliamentary Seat headed by the Prior. Within its boundaries are a church and a town hall which treasures the heritage of historical heirlooms of past races and all that has to do with the daily life of the Contrada.
The Palio is a secular celebration that sees all of Siena participate without distinctions. To have the possibility to experience first-hand that which, in spite of it all, nonetheless remains a great and joyful town festivity is an unforgettable moment of magic, which is sure to stay impressed in the memory of those who are fortunate enough to view it.

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