When Lee and I went to Montalcino this last August, we had a job to do. We had to photograph our newly finished Villa Palazzetta for the new website we were creating. But it just so happened that the August Palio was happening in Siena at the same time. Our
property manager, Lisa Jane Cappannini is from Siena. She belongs to the Lupa contrada or "She Wolf." The Palio is a very serious event in Siena, it's held twice a year and
winning is a VERY big deal.
Lisa invited us as her guests at the big Lupa dinner the night before the race. 2500 Lupaioli gathered in the contrada's meeting place in Siena for a night of food, speeches, singing and wine drinking.
Winning a Palio is early impossible. The odds are against you. First you have to be one of 10 contradas out of 17 picked to race. Then you have to draw (by lottery) a good horse with the potential of winning. Then you need to hire a good jockey to ride the horse. Then you need a good starting position out of the ten horses. The best starting positions are on the inside of the track, spots 2 through 4. The worst starting position is tenth, because it's on the outside of the first turn you'll be last out of the gate. Well, Lupa got in the race, drew a pretty good horse and found an experienced jockey. All good things. But then they drew the tenth starting position. All seemed to be lost.
But then a miracle happened. At the start Lupa's jockey immediately cut behind all the other horses to the inside. As the pack swung wide on the first turn he went to the inside. Then on the first big turn he cut hard to the inside and passed everyone! Lisa Jane who was next to us nearly fainted. Porto Alabe held on to the lead all the way to the finish. As Lupa's horse, Porto Alabe, crossed the finish line a canon was fired to end the race and the horse and jockey were mobbed by Lupa followers. From there, mayhem ensued. The entire contrada and the horse and jockey marched into the Duomo for a celebration and then returned to the contrada where the real party began. Oh, and I forgot to mention, there are no saddles in the race. All the riders ride bareback. They have only reins and a riding crop. The only rule is that you can't interfere or touch your opponent's horse. As for touching the other rider, there are no rules. And one more thing. Only the horse has to finish. Even if the horse finishes without the rider you win. And it's happened.
Needless to say being there with Lisa Jane, with her contrada every step of the way, was an experience we'll never forget and one we'll surely remember all our lives. To get a small sense of the neighborhood pride that's involved in each and every Palio, check out the above video clip. This was Lupaioli (Lupa residents) carrying the Palio banner back to their contrada. The Palio banner is the only prize from a Palio victory. That and the pure joy and pride of winning. This race has been going on for hundred's of years and each contrada has a it's own museum where they display the banners they have won over the years. And it's not that many!
Below is a gallery of the photos I took from the blessing of the horse, through the contrada's march to the Campo, through the parade before the race, then the race, then the celebration at the Duomo and the march back to to contrada. A lifetime experience.