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THE PALIO: TALES OF ARDOUR ON TURF

In the gorgeously preserved Tuscan hill town of Siena (Italy) the Middle Ages seem to survive in the architecture and in the civic spirit and twice a year, that spirit shows itself in a crazy horse race, as it has for six centuries. Twice a year this Tuscan city comes to a standstill, as Siena‘s iconic, medieval Piazza del Campo is transformed into a pulsating, claustrophobic racetrack. Il Palio is a dramatic battle that is played as much off the track as it is on it, with the city’s different contrade (districts) vying for the glory success brings. Virtually unchanged since the 14th century, it is a race about desire, pageantry and pride. For the Sienese, you're born, there's the Palio and then you can die. The Palio is not some folkloristic event. It’s an event that makes the tradition keep alive. If you’re there for the race—packed onto the oval square with 50,000 people, all hungry for victory—you won’t see much, but you will feel the spirit of Siena. Siena is divided into 17 neighborhoods, so called contrade, 10 of which vie for the coveted Palio banner. Each competing contrada gets its horse through a lottery and then showers it with love, washing and grooming it in a stable that's more like a five-star hotel. Contrade — each with its own parish church, fountain, and square — are filled with rivalries. Each contrada is represented by a mascot (porcupine, tortoise, snail, etc) and a distinctive flag. While the race itself lasts just 80 seconds, festivities go on for days. As Palio day approaches, processions break out across the city, including one in which the famed and treasured banner is held high as it is paraded to the cathedral. With the waving flags and pounding drums, it all harkens back to medieval times, when these rituals boosted morale before battle. On race day, bets are placed on which contrada will win...and lose. Despite the shady behind-the-scenes dealing, the horses are taken into their contrada's church to be blessed. "Go and return victorious," says the priest. In Il Campo, turf is brought in and packed down to create the track's surface, while mattresses pad the walls of surrounding buildings. The horses's safety is a main priority nowadays. The Palio is a historical secular tradition strictly connected with the origin of the Contradas of Siena. The Contradas are spectacular agonistic institutions each having their own government, oratory, coat of arms, appellations, sometimes titles of nobility, emblems and colours, official representatives, festivities, patron Saints, with protectors, delimited territories and population which consist of all those people who were born or live within the topographic limits of the district. The spirit of Siena is in the very colours of her ‘Contrade’ and in all the manifestations connected with each of them. First of all, the benediction of the horses and jockeys, each in the church of their own ‘Contrada’. It is this spirit that animates the whole manifestation and contributes such enthusiasm and pathos to the scene. This traditional popular manifestation lasts four days and finishes in the streets of the victorious "Contrada" where the people celebrate the happy event in a most joyous way. Winner pays all. Whoever happens to be in Siena during these exciting days can, but join in the enthusiasm of the people for the Palio and, of course, the final victory. Visitors, in fact, often go roaming through the winding streets of the ancient town sympathizing with the ‘Contrada’ in which they are living; they do their best to understand the alliances and rivalries between the contradas and temporarily become fervent ‘contradaioli’ having much at heart the health of the race horse and of the jockey. Each of the 10 horses that compete in the Palio has to go to church on the day of the race. The horse that wins has to go twice. Before the race, every horse is led into the chapel of the contrada that he represents to be blessed by a priest. Afterwards, the winner must also attend a mass of thanksgiving at the city's cathedral. These solemn rites are witnessed by more or less the entire able-bodied population of Siena - men, women and children, festooned with the flags of their contrade and beside themselves with emotion - in an atmosphere of voluble but barely articulate hysteria. That's Siena's ardour and this is what get the city divided and at the same time strongly linked together.

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