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The Palio of Siena Italy

If going to Ascot(with all its finery) is your idea of holiday hell, then you'll love the Palio. In Siena a whole year of intense preparation and near-religious fervour is compressed into 90 seconds of ferocious, cut-throat horse racing. The Palio displays the rough underbelly of the otherwise noble and refined Tuscan city: this is surely the grittiest horse race on earth.

The race takes place in Siena 's magnificent Campo Square(actually, it's more of a trapezium). Jockeys ride bareback and are encouraged to hit one another with a crop made out of a calf's penis(you don't see many of those at Ascot). Bribery and sabotage are such important features that the event wouldn't exist without them. Although the horses are guarded day and night, there's usually at least one that will enter the race frothing at the mouth because a rival has spiked its trough.

Ever since the first Palio in 1147, the focus has been neighbourhood rivalry rather than racing horses. Nearly a thousand years on, the race has lost none of the drama and fanaticism that originally inspired mediaeval Siena. Ten horses compete and each represents a medieval district, or ' contrade ', within the city. Citizens remain fiercely loyal to the area where they were born. Names of the contrade include the Horned Lion, the Dragon and the Noble Caterpillar(500:1 odds). In medieval times, such loyalties often resulted in pitched street battles. Today the tension remains at such a pitch that husbands and wives are known to separate during the run-up to the race, preferring to remain loyal to their contrade rather than one another.

Excitement bubbles to the surface of Siena long before the main event. Odds and favourites are discussed by day, racketeering and extortion deals by night. Tourists are invited to join in local feasting(consult the tourist office for tickets) and can watch members of each race contingent march around town in full costume, as they practise their parade steps.

On the day of the race - having blessed the horse in the local chapel - each contrade hosts a colourful procession through the city, complete with fanfares, flag twirling and traditional costumes. The parades converge in the Campo. Arches lead into the vast, café-lined square - a focal point for the Sienese where, on a normal night, they will take a stroll or linger over a drink. Be warned: you won't find much space for strolling on 2 July. The Sienese make reservations for café seats in the Campo more than six months in advance, so the best thing to do is to simply turn up on the day and join the masses in the centre of the square.

The horses must take three laps around the cobble-stoned Campo before the real celebrations can begin. At the base of the Campo's impressive belltower is a tatty old mattress, which serves as a crash barrier on the course's most dangerous bend(though it has not saved many horses from broken legs or jockeys from broken necks). The baiting is generally good-natured and violence is kept to a minimum - with just one exception. Coming second is the ultimate humiliation for a contrade and the unfortunate jockey may be dragged from his horse and beaten by the angry mob. Meanwhile, the winning contrade is presented with a silk banner(' palio ') before he embarks upon a year-long binge of feasting and congratulatory back-slapping.

If you can't make it for the race then there is a ' prove '(trial contest) the day before, which will provide a taste of things to come.



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