Palio di Siena, Siena, Italy

Where? Siena, Italy

When? 16th of August

Although known the world over for its architecture, proud population, and vibrant party spirit, Siena is perhaps best recognized for its famous Palio di Siena horse race. Held twice each summer, “Il Palio” is a 90-second bareback dash around the enormous Piazza del Campo – a competition that has occurred every year (save for one during World War II) since the first stallions lined up in 1656. Prior to that, participants rode buffalos. Seriously.

Though the event appears festive and joyous to outsiders, the honor at stake is no laughing matter. Each of the ten horses in the race represents one of Siena’s contrade, or districts (there are seventeen in all; the seven that aren’t selected automatically race the next year), and the rider who brings his steed to victory also brings great esteem to his contrade.

Although no money is involved (at least not officially), a special hand-painted silk banner of the Virgin Mary created for each race goes to the winner. This banner (or “palio”) is thought to deliver great luck to the district that wins it.

Although the race itself is brief, the medieval streets of Siena are alive with the sound of music, singing, parades, and feasts a week before the horses even make an appearance, and afterwards the winning contrade throws a blow-out street party that can last for days.

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