Siena, Italy — IN a scene that harks back to the Middle Ages, 50,000 spectators in this city's packed, fan-shaped piazza explode with emotion as horses representing rival neighborhoods burst from their starting positions.
Bareback atop the steeds are 10 colorfully clad jockeys. Riding with them are enormous stakes for themselves and their civic patrons.
For three breathtaking, mud-spattered laps, the riders exhort their charges in a race known as the Palio -- a competition of the city's districts, or contrade. As the winner crosses the finish line, pandemonium erupts; members of the winning contrada leap from the stands, and the multitudes burst into tears, cheers and song. In the soft Tuscan twilight, the ancient square itself seems to shake and swell with excitement.
The Palio, which my family witnessed last year, is one of Europe's grand spectacles. Held twice each summer, it embodies this fabled city's history, passions and lore. But to the people of Siena, it is something more.
"The Palio is not a sporting competition; it's not a horse race," says Chiara Savoi, a Siena native and member of the contrada known as Lupa, or She-wolf.
"It's something we feel inside. Is the horse race 75 seconds long? Yes. But if you win the Palio, you are the boss of the town. You can do whatever you want against the enemy contrada. It's the glory. The power. The tradition. The Palio is the soul of Siena."
To experience the Palio is to share, at least vicariously, in that glory and tradition. For fiercely proud Sienese, victories are so enduring that births, marriages and deaths are marked by who won that year's Palio. And the competition is so cutthroat that in the days before the race, fears abound of horses being drugged or jockeys bribed, and both are closely guarded.
During a honeymoon trip nearly two decades earlier, my wife, Katherine, and I found ourselves in Siena's main piazza one evening when the sound of song suddenly emanated from somewhere in the city's narrow streets. A boisterous procession marched into the square. We learned this was the Palio's winning contrada -- still celebrating a month later. We vowed one day to see the event itself.
We returned with our 11-year-old daughter, Julia, for the full Palio experience. After arriving two days before the August race, we watched two trials and attended a dinner with 900 members of the Lupa contrada.
By the eve of the Palio, Julia was so caught up in it that she told me, "I've got butterflies in my stomach."
The race's origins
MEDIEVAL Siena stretches over three steep hills in the heart of the Chianti region of Tuscany. It's renowned for its Gothic cathedral as well as its Piazza del Campo, whose paving stones were laid in 1347.
Twice a year, the piazza is transformed. A dirt track is laid around the perimeter in the days before the Palio, always July 2 and Aug. 16. The race -- a tribute to the Madonna, Siena's patron saint -- is of uncertain origin but dates back as far as the 13th century.
The Palio itself is a silk banner dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Each year, Siena artists compete to design the flag for the July contest, and international artists do the same for the August race.
The city has 17 contrade. There isn't room for all to race, so 10 compete in each Palio. If a contrada is not selected in July or August, it is included the following year. The remaining slots are filled by lottery.
The contrade are like extended communal families. Each is a separate city ward. In the Middle Ages, each had its own military to defend Siena from rival Florence. Today, each has a church, a public square and a headquarters. The most common way to join a contrada is to be born or baptized into it.
Every major event -- from birth and baptism to marriage and death -- is marked within the contrada. Most of the contrade are named after animals and other creatures -- Caterpillar, Dragon, Eagle, Forest, Giraffe, Goose, Owl, Panther, Porcupine, Ram, Shell, Snail, Tower, Turtle, Unicorn and Wave, as well as the she-wolf, which derives from the legend of Remus and Romulus.
The day before the Palio, Luca Luchini, Lupa's president, is visibly tense. We meet at the contrada's headquarters, where Lupa's horse is stabled.
People pay $50 to $60 annually to belong to the contrada. Most of Lupa's nearly 2,000 members reside beyond the ward's boundaries. "The people who live outside the town feel the contrada inside themselves," says Luchini, a 56-year-old banker.
During a tour of Lupa's museum, Luchini shows us the banners his contrada has won. I ask if he has a favorite. "The next one," he replies with a smile.