I Left My Heart in Siena: Lingering Thoughts on Il Palio

Article by: Chip Conley|@ChipConley

Sat July 06, 2013 | 00:00 AM

Il Palio is a strange mixture of Kentucky Derby meets Fiesta de San Fermin meets a Renaissance Fair, but what’s remarkable is that it’s not the lowest common denominator of each of those comparisons. It’s the most competitive, daring horse race in the world. It’s a village festival full of fierce and fascinating rivalries. It’s got great historical appeal and is a must-see for anyone who loves formal costumes and gallantry.

And, like any good festival or sporting event, they finish the ritual with a drinking fest. This happens all over town, but, I spent my time in Oca, the district that won the Il Palio race. Here’s some video from the church where there will big tables in front serving free chianti to anyone who wanted to imbibe:

I’m ringing the church bells in the Oca district that helps all of Siena know that Oca won the race

I’m ringing the church bells in the Oca district that helps all of Siena know that Oca won the race

I ended up in an Oca trattoria at a table with Swedes, Japanese, French, and Americans, but we were all honorary Oca residents that evening and we finished off quite a bit of top shelf liquor and, of course, more chianti.

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My memories are of chivalry and honor…

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Of an early precursor to Gentlemen’s Quarterly fashion…

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Of incredible architecture and quaint alleyways…

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And, I still have memories and five pounds around my waist from all the gelateria that populate this city.

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But, it’s the people who made this festival special for me. I was a little cautious when I arrived as I’d heard this is truly a local tradition that goes back twenty generations or more and the Sienese haven’t wanted foreign influences diluting this festivals (no, there are no corporate sponsors). My experience was quite the opposite as locals wanted to share something that was so valuable, a “living museum” for how their families have lived since long before the iPhone, the light bulb, or the guillotine (there was a Museum of Torture right near my Airbnb unit).

I had a delightful talk with my host for three days, Luana, who has lived her whole life in Siena and with her friend, Ottavia, helping to translate, she told me a little bit about why she loves Il Palio and how it brings the rich and poor alike to something that unites everyone:

Luana arranged for someone to drive me to Spoleto, two hours away, because there wasn’t an ideal public transportation route. And, when my driver arrived and I got in the car with him, I beamed a big smile when I saw his dashboard: the symbol for his contrada and a small bareback rider and horse. These people take their traditions seriously.

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For days to come, I bet I’ll be dreaming of flags, banners, or men in medieval uniform.

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