The history.The contrade, or city districts, of Siena date back to medieval times when the city was trying to gain freedom in the war of independence from Florence. These original districts were created to help supply the many troops hired to defend the city. While the contrade no longer have military responsibilities, they are still of utmost importance to life within Siena.
The rivalry.The Sienese strongly identify with their contrada. Each of the 17 contrada have a rich history and distinct personal identity. In fact, rivalries and alliances with other contrada have been ongoing for centuries (often stemming from boundary and taxation disputes). Today, the individual neighborhoods serve as a cultural and spiritual hub for all citizens of the district – hosting recreational activities and providing social welfare, as well as each supporting a chapel, museum, and stables for horses competing in Palio de Siena. Even with today’s more modern thinking, marrying outside of one’s own district is still frowned upon. (If there is an inter-contrada marriage, it’s recommended that spouses sleep apart in their parent’s homes during the days leading up to Palio de Siena!)
The race.The world’s most passionate horse race, il Palio, takes place in Siena, Italy, on July 2 and August 16 of each year. This tradition dates back to as early as the 13th century. Since 1729, the number of participants has been limited to 10 contrada. The contrada that did not participate in the previous year’s Palio de Siena are eligible as well as three additional contrada.
The allegiances of citizens to their contrada comes alive during Palio de Siena. Preparations within each contrada for il Palio are elaborate. Rivalries and alliances between contrada come back to the forefront as just about anything - sabotage, bribery, trickery, sacrifice - goes in this race. Horses as well as jockeys are protected around the clock. Countless planning and strategy sessions are held, often in the district’s museum. And, all of the town’s citizens spend much of their time throughout the year preparing costumes and practicing the pageantry that will be displayed during the Corteo Storico.
If you’d like to visit each of the 17 contrada, contact us. Museums within the districts are often open by appointment only. But, we can help plan your trip to make exploration easy. Let us give you the experience of a lifetime filled with history, loyalty, rivalry, and the oldest horse race in the world – Palio de Siena.