The Palio Horse Race in Siena, Tuscany
Among the great Tuscan cultural events of the year and certainly the central attraction of any summer in Siena is Il Palio, a celebrated multi-day festival capped by a frenzied bareback horse race held in the city on two occasions— July 2 in honor of the local Madonna of Provenzano, and August 16 in honor of the Assumption of the Virgin. It is fueled by the historic long-standing rivalry between Siena’s 17 contrade, or city wards, each of which enters a representative horse and jockey and from which 10 entrants ultimately are culled. During Il Palio, Siena's central square, the Piazza del Campo, takes on the aura of a medieval pageant, gushing ceremony and local color and culminating in the equine event itself, dubbed by many "the world's craziest horse race."
The turbulent history of Siena marked by its hard-fought independence from Florence and other regional city-states ages ago is rekindled in the drama and freneticism of Il Palio. Each contrada represents a virtually autonomous neighborhood entity, and the rival delegations that participate in the festival enjoy passionate interaction amid feasting, pageantry and organized processions. The climactic horse race, run bareback through narrow city streets at hair-raising speeds in a furor hazardous to both the animals and their riders, is likened to Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls. Taken altogether, the event is exciting, colorful, genuine and theatrical, an invigorating cultural experience for anyone fortunate enough to be in Siena at the time.