Standing in the middle of the crowded Piazza del Campo, there is no room to move. Drummers dressed in heavy velvet frocks keep a steady rhythm as the crowd hums with anticipation. The mass of people looks like a wave, swaying back and forth as people jostle each other for space and a small window of space to scan the empty dirt ring surrounding the crowd. Suddenly, the crowd roars as the sound of hoofbeats encircles the piazza. Horses burst onto the racetrack to the cheers of the piazza, their brightly colored riders bearing the symbols of their cities. The race for the Palio di Siena has begun.
Although I’ve been to Siena before, nothing prepared me for the intensity and passion that the Palio brings to the city. Each year, the city puts on one of the most famous events in Italian tradition, a horserace run in honor of the apparition of the Virgin Mary that occured in 1656. Over a period of 4 days, the 17 city districts of Siena, called Contradas, participate in a series of parades, reenactments and other activities that all are steeped in tradition and hard for a foreigner to completely understand.
After squeezing into the jam-packed piazza where the race is held, we stood for an hour as the processional of Contradas circled the track. After the last flag had gone around the arena, the jockeys entered the track to the cheering of the crowd and began the challenging process of lining up the horses for the race. After a few minutes, all the riders were at the starting line, and with a loud bang, the starting gun went off and the horses sprinted from the line.
The jockeys flew around the track, completely disregarding the dangerously steep curve of the arena as the people in the crowd went wild. 3 laps later, the Contrada Selva was crowned the winner and immediately set off to their district for a night of wild celebration, while the other Contradas were left to dry their tears and curse their jockeys who had left them without the honor of winning the Palio.
As I (sadly) finish up my final days in Florence, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons I’ve learned and the memories I’ve