When it comes to watching livestock race through the streets of an ancient European city, this turf writer remains partial to the 90-second spectacle of the Palio di Siena. Twice a year, every July and August, the cobblestones of this Tuscan hill town's Piazza del Campo are covered with a thick layer of dirt, and its stone walls are layered with mattresses, so that 10 mixed-breed horses and their saddleless riders can compete for the honor of their respective Contrade (districts). Known to the locals as simply Il Palio, the race was first run in 1656 to celebrate an apparition of the Virgin Mary. I'm not going to pretend that I totally get the whole extravaganza. A good many of the thousands who crowd the Piazza seem just a teensy bit overwrought about a race run merely for district bragging rights. And the event itself isn't without a moderate amount of equine-on-human mayhem. But the Palio's peculiarities make me think that the only way to truly understand it is to experience one for myself.
Text: Mark Beech