Center Stage in Siena
Aerial shots of the Piazza del Campo, ringed with 13 th-and 14th-century palazzi, reveal its unusual scallop shape, but they don’t prepare you for its size or beauty. Built at the point where Siena’s three hills converge, II Campo is divided into nine marble-trimmed strips, which represent the city’s ancient Government of Nine and are also said to imitate the folds in the cloak of the Virgin Mary
Looming on one side is the Palazzo Pubblico, with its sky-scraping 320-foot bell tower, the Torre del Mangia, the second highest in Italy. If you climb its 505 steps, you will be rewarded with a vertigo-inducing view of idyllic Chianti countryside that stretches toward Florence, but your view is probably better—and certainly less strenuous—from any cafe table below.
The piazza has always been the city’s center stage and location for the raucous bareback horse race known as the Palio. Hysteria and excitement fuel this twice- yearly event, which culminates in ninety seconds and three hair-raising laps around the earth-covered piazza. But first, a remarkable procession, the corteo storico, unfolds.
Each of the seventeen contrade, the historical divisions of the town (with names like Giraffe, Tower, Wolf, and Wave), are represented by dozens of pages, drummers, and banner bearers dressed in the contrada’s heraldic colors and elaborate historical costumes, including knightly armor.
A highlight of the parade is synchronized flag throwing, which Sienese youths practice from their earliest days.
This reenactment of the pomp and pageantry of Siena’s medieval past is motivated not by tourism dollars, but rather by the participants’ deeply felt emotions about their contrade, the city, and its history—not to mention centuries-old feudal rivalries (the race dates to the 12th century).
Only ten of the contrade compete in each race, a selection determined by lot before the festival. In this freewheeling, treacherous race, with (padded) death-defying corners, the first horse to cross the finish line (even without a rider) wins. The prize? A banner of cloth painted with the image of the Virgin Mary, plus official bragging rights for the year.
Unless you live in Siena, obtaining tickets can be frustrating. The alternative is spending hours under the Tuscan sun, standing in the packed square with 50,000 new best friends.