I’m back, after stepping away from my blog to tour Utah’s Grand Circle of National Parks and a few state parks—the topic of my next blog series.

Meanwhile, there is so much more to write about Italy, so I will continue where I left off: Siena.  What a special and unique place this is!  If you have ever been to New Orleans and learned about its unique history, culture, and traditions; you would have to agree there is no other place like it.  The same can be said for Siena, especially its Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Paved with cobblestones, the city is built over five hills and has a unique districting system.  Each of its 17 districts, or contrade, is named after an animal or symbol, such as a rhinoceros, goose, snail, or giraffe.

(For all pictures, click on the image to see full screen view.)

The rhinoceros is the symbol of Contrada Della Selva

These contrade were originally set up during the Middle Ages for military purposes when Siena fought to preserve its independence from Florence.  Over the years, they became a source of civic pride and patriotism. Within the contrada, everybody looks out for each other as an extended family.  Each contrada has their own symbol, colors, flags, motto, museum, church, fountain, and festivals; and, most importantly, a horse entered in the all-important and most-celebrated festival of all, the Palio.  These people live for the summer Palio, an approximately 70-90-second bareback horse race of three laps of mayhem around the dirt-filled Piazza del Campo that takes place on July 2 and August 16.  The turns are sharp, and it’s typical to see jockeys thrown off their horses.  No worries; it’s the horse that wins, not the jockey, and riderless horses have won on several occasions. 

Green and orange are the colors of Contrada Della Selva as shown in their museum display.
Contrada Della Selva displays green and orange flags in their church.
Contrada Della Selva’s baptisms are conducted in this fountain.

Anything goes during these races, including trying to knock a rival jockey off his horse.  It’s chaos, and the celebration afterward is as crazy as the race itself.  The winning contrada hosts a very festive banquet in their streets, and the alcohol flows.  They are awarded with a banner that gets displayed in their museum.  Local artists compete for the honor of designing the winners’ banner for the July race, and international artists compete for the August race banner.

This banner was won in the 1611 Palio.

What’s even crazier than the actual race is the shenanigans (“legal corruption”) that takes place before each Palio.  District members donate money to help buy a good jockey, and the jockeys negotiate (bribe?) to get a better pole position or conspire to block another horse.

Piazaa del Campo, home of the Palio horse race

Check out 2022’s Palio here.  You have to see it to believe it.

As we walked through a few of the contrade during our walking tour, I got a sense of team spirit and community.  Homes displayed their contrada’s flag and symbol; and, there was a palpable pride within each district, especially if they had won a past Palio.

Visiting the Siena Cathedral was another memory that stood out for me.  Dating back to the 1200’s, it was an amazing work of art—especially the inlayed stone floors that were created in the 1300’s.  There were entire scenes and stories depicted in large rectangular areas of the floor that were stunning—and something usually created as painted murals on cathedral ceilings.

On the way to Siena Cathedral
Looking through an opening of the facade of the unfinished section of the cathedral
Inside the cathedral
Inlayed stone floors of the cathedral

During our morning walking tour, we toured Basilica di San Domenico
Inside Basilica di San Domenico
This used to be a church, but it now houses stables for their contrada’s Palio horses!

One thing I especially appreciated about touring with Overseas Adventure Travel was the free time allotted in each place for independent exploration.  We took advantage of this in Siena, opting to grab a pizza slice on the go rather than dine in a restaurant, so we could visit the cathedral and roam through a few contrade.  There was even time at the end to enjoy a gelato and watch the dogs walking their owners in the Piazza del Campo.

Shields representing each of the 17 contrade
The plate on the right depicts the 17 contrade
Italy is known for making beautiful paper.