I have something that I affectionately refer to as my Italian Bucket List.
Hiking the Stromboli Volcano? Check.
Battle of the Oranges? That was on it, but is now complete.
Siena’s Palio? I have yet to fulfill my dream of experiencing the tradition first hand. The race is controversial because it is also dangerous.
Siena’s main piazza, elliptical and slanted, is cleared of bar tables and festival booths.
For the Palio, the square is a race track.
But the Palio is so much more than a race – it is practically a religion.
Siena is a city divided.
The picturesque Italian town is all about the contrade.
A contrada is a district. It is these districts, these sub-city divisions, that race.
Each of the 17 contrade has a horse. Before the Palio, the horses sleep behind guarded gates in the neighborhood that they represent.
When I visited Siena, we explored La Selva.
The symbol of La Selva is a rhinoceros.
La Selva – the jungle – has been a documented contrada since 1506, carrying forth the banner of the neighborhood.
And the neighborhood is what it is all about when it comes to the Palio.
You aren’t just born into a contrada – you are baptized into one.
When a child is born, the parents must agree on the contrada that the baby will support for the rest of his or her life.
The tiny child then goes through a symbolic baptism at the contrada’s font, in front of the church.
An announcement is published in the newspaper, listing the child as belonging to that contrada.
And a contrada is for life.
The religious overtones don’t stop there.
Each contrada has its own church, displaying its victory banners.
For La Selva, the holy place is the church of Saint Sebastian in Vallepiatta.
The aisles of the church are wide, and the pews are moveable.
Ahead of the race, the horse literally walks into the church to be blessed.
Below the church, La Selva has a contrada museum.
The Palio happens twice a year (once on 2 July and once again on 16 August), and the winning contrada is awarded a custom-designed banner to commorate the occasion.
In the contrada museums, you can find banners dating back to the 1700, 1600 and even 1500s.
A church, a baptism, a place of worship.
The palio really is more religion than race.
Church of Saint Sebastian in Vallepiatta
Piazzetta della Selva 5
I visited Siena and toured La Selva as a guest of My Tours Tuscany.