Ever wondered what it would be like to be in the middle of a giant, screaming crowd of excited Italians decked out in costumes, watching jockeys and their horses race through the center of one of the most beautiful towns in the world? This is the Palio di Siena (or Il Palio, as it’s called by locals), and it’s truly one of the most awe-inspiring cultural events any study abroad student or world traveler could ever hope to experience. Luckily for SPI Study Abroad students who choose to study abroad in Italy, the Palio festivities actually take place during their weeks of study! So, what exactly does Il Palio entail? Read on to find out five cool facts about this awesome event.

Il Palio has some serious historical roots.  The first modern Palio took place in 1656, but different forms of the race have been taking place since as early as the 14th century! Over the centuries, the Piazza del Campo (where the actual racing occurs) has been a site for bullfighting and donkey races, which has led to the bareback horse race that is Il Palio today.

Familial ties run deep for this ancient celebration. From birth, each inhabitant of Siena belongs to a contrada (or, divided area of the city). Each contrada has its own flags and colors that are displayed throughout the city, and families take immense pride in their particular contrada and customs. The contradas have historically challenged one another to compete in the race, and continue to do so today.

The Palio celebration involves months of preparation…but the race itself is normally only 90 seconds long! In addition, the festivities take place over the course of four days. There are lots of fun events, special masses to honor the jockeys, and one heck of a costume parade that occurs throughout the city.

The race has been depicted in many movies, books, TV shows, and other forms of media. The film The Last Victory (2004) and the James Bond film Quantum of Solace (2008) both showcase Il Palio.

Jockeys can pretty much do anything to win. Other than tugging on an opponent’s reins, jockeys are allowed to do anything to distract other jockeys during the race. This means that, frequently, some jockeys will actually fall off their horses! But, no matter — the rules state that as long as your horse crosess the finish line first, you don’t need to be on it to win.