'Watching medieval horse race was the trip of a lifetime'

Kerstin and her parents at the Palio in Siena, Italy

Kerstin and her parents at the Palio in Siena, Italy - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

This is my third time in Siena and my second time at the Palio, the perilous historic horse race around the shell-shaped main square.

I like the city so much I even named my daughter Sienna.

It's divided into 17 contrada or districts, each represented by an animal or mascot. These are the contestants for the twice yearly race - first held as a civic celebration in 1482.

Consisting of three turns around the Piazza del Campo, a series of practice runs take place throughout the week, and in the final race 10 districts are chosen to compete.

The Palio

Medieval pagentry at the Palio - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

William Cheyne, a Shetlander/Italian I met while waiting for the race to start, explained the rivalry: "It's like football but much, much more, like 100 times more strongly felt. The contrada have been enemies for over 500 years."

Football-style chants are sung operatically, call and response, from different sections of the crowd. The tune is similar but the words change for each contrada. The Porcupines sing at the Geese: 'You are crap and nobody likes you.' The Oca Goose is the contrada that has won the most times.

It turns out that nobody does like them, they have no friends, but they have an enemy – the Torre or Tower.

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This year, I am part of the Oca, wearing the scarf depicting the heraldry, a white goose with a blue ribbon around the neck on a green, red and white background. They were disqualified in 2019 for insulting and harassing the Torre. Since this is the first Palio since the pandemic, they are banned from running this year.

The Palio

The horse race takes place twice yearly in the central square and has been run for 500 years - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

I asked William, a fellow Oca, if he was upset. "The most important is that the Torre don't win. They are favourites this year, and this would be a disaster,'" he says. William's family come from Rome, but he visited a Sienese schoolfriend every year throughout his childhood and has now been baptised into the contrada, a process that takes place in May each year.

The jockeys ride bareback, but it's the horse that wins - even without a rider. The contrada save all year to hire the best horse and jockey, but it's a job that comes with danger - jockeys have to be escorted from the race as enemy districts can be so hostile and at times have ended up in hospital. Cheating is not unknown and horses can be nobbled too.

In fact, we saw a rider unmounted during a practice race. This caused utter fury, chants became more aggressive and hundreds of pointing fingers jabbed the air. The Porcupines were allowed to leave the arena to prevent fights breaking out. I took photos and ushers sternly commanded: "don't do that". They didn't want this picturesque medieval tradition revealed as a passionately hostile battle between neighbours.

The Palio

Kerstin with the Siena horse - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

I managed to procure rare tickets (€35 per person), for the evening dinner, usually closed to tourists, in the Oca contrada, around via Santa Catarina. 800 diners are seated in rows of tables in the street. During years when the Oca compete, this doubles to 1,600, spreading into passageways, alleys, courtyards, piazzas and roads. It's the biggest supperclub you can imagine, whipped up by around 20 cooks, both professional and amateur.

After the aperitivo, where we down tiny blood-orange bottles of Campari with Prosecco mixers, we sit down. My mum and I are vegetariano. The antipasti is half a burrata, a marinated artichoke heart, a whole sun-dried tomato, a slice of melon and a draping of ham. The ham is promptly removed from our plates. Primi consists of ricotta-stuffed ravioli with a sauce of tomatoes and pine nuts. Segundi is a kind of kebab with a selection of roasted meat atop a pile of braised spinach.

At the contrada dinner

At the contrada dinner - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

"Vegetariano", I repeat. Our plates return with a mountainous dome of braised spinach with the kebab removed. This makes us giggle.
The very decent Chianti is flowing; bottle after bottle is placed on the table. I hear my dad pledging undying loyalty to Siena, Oca and the random guests sitting next to us. Dessert consists of a homemade chocolate-covered ice cream wedged into tin foil, served by local teenagers.

At 1am, we begin the steep trek home through the winding ochre-coloured streets. I have to physically pull my 80-plus parents up the hills, exhorting them onwards like a sports coach. Drink was partook. They zig-zag wearily and happily. The next morning my mum declares: "Getting undressed for bed is overrated."

Siena Italy

Siena Italy - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers

This was a bucket list item ticked off, the experience of a lifetime.

Kerstin stayed at the Torre alle Tolfe farmhouse self-catering apartments just outside Siena. https://latorrealletolfe.com/

A rival porcupine

A rival porcupine - Credit: Kerstin Rodgers