The Palio is a really big deal in Siena. It boils down to a horse race between the city’s contrade (neighborhoods), which has been run twice yearly since 1701. But the palpable passion and undying dedication to the pomp and circumstance that goes into each race signifies that to Italians (and lovers of all-things-Italian), it is so much more. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/kiki99)
It would be impossible to over-stress the importance of region here — no one can support more than one contrada and horses are born into their neighborhood, with no option of being transferred. Each neighborhood announces their chosen jockey late the night before each race, adding to the speculation and anticipation of the day.
Once you’ve chosen a neighborhood to support (I chose based on the prettiest team colors, but I imagine others are more strategic), choose whether to follow the procession to the Piazza del Campo (Siena’s largest square and makeshift race track) or people watch and snack on street foods while waiting in the square. Once the very grand and old fashioned procession has come to a close and the horses have lined up calmly next to each other, the gun goes off and the race begins! And then, in the blink of an eye… it ends. At the end of about two minutes, one contrada is the glowing recipient of unparalleled glory, pride, and bragging rights until next year. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/kloppster)
But perhaps the most fun tradition of the Palio, in my opinion, is the food. Almost immediately after the race has run, most restaurants in the Piazza del Campo set tables and chairs out onto the race track. Full disclosure: the restaurants situated on the Piazza del Campo are worth passing over for more under-the-radar Siena gems under normal circumstances. But to tuck into a juicy, mouth-watering Bistecca alla Fiorentina by a freshly raced track and with a view of singing, drumming, and gloating revelers is an experience for all senses.
That food and the Palio go hand and hand is nothing new — when the riding jockey is announced on the eve of the race, it is at an enormous dinner held for the entire contrada. But now, one of the Palio’s most loved and storied jockeys, Andrea Degortes (aka Aceto) recently opened a new restaurant called Millevini.
Dedicated to serving foods made from all locally sourced ingredients, Millevini is situated within the Enoteca Italiana in Siena. Putting to good use the enoteca’s wine cellar (with over 1600 different wines, who wouldn’t?), Millevini showcases the meats, cheeses, and fish native to that region of Tuscany. It may be in Siena, but it is considered safe land — any jockey from any neighborhood can dine there. (Photo courtesy of Millevini)