Trail of the unexpected: The contrade of Siena

Siena's Palio horse races celebrate centuries of civic rivalry, as Harriet O'Brien discovers

Head directly west of Siena's glorious main square and you're in a district of rhinos. The incongruous presence of primeval-looking grey beasts amid a maze of narrow medieval lanes may not be immediately obvious, but once you train your eyes you'll see plenty more.

From the tower and great palazzo of Il Campo, I meandered along Via Citta and down Via dei Pelligrini, following a trail of these improbable creatures. They feature on plaques beside the street names. However, the signs are small, so spotting them is like being on a treasure hunt.

The rhino is the emblem of one of Siena's 17 contrade, time-honoured communities that each have an allocated territory in the ancient core of the city. Every contrada has an emblem, so as you walk around this tiny hilltop city you'll see, if you look closely, that the different neighbourhoods are marked with these wonderful heraldic symbols, from wolf and porcupine in the north to snail and turtle in the south.

The contrade date back to the Middle Ages. They were once self-governing entities and as such they were often referred to as Siena's "tribes", especially as each contrada would supply troops to help defend the city-state against Florence and other enemies. There were once as many as 59 of these groups, but in the course of time – and various power wrangles – many of them were amalgamated. They may no longer have military and overt political functions, but the contrade are alive and well today and long-term residents of this immensely proud city maintain that they belong firstly to their contrada and only secondly to Siena.

The contrade are most colourfully active during the Palio, Siena's famous bareback horse races that take place around Il Campo each year on 2 July and on 16 August. Visit the city this Monday and you might be forgiven for thinking that you've abruptly time-walked back a good six centuries. If you can squeeze your way into the historic walled town you'll find the streets alive with pageantry and festooned with the banners of the contrade – heraldic flags emblazoned with emblems of snails, geese, dragons, giraffes and unicorns (and rhinos, too, of course).

Indeed, this was my introduction to Tuscany's most flamboyant city; watching the horse race was a terrific thrill lasting less than two minutes, while the parades around it were captivating. However, it's impossible to see much if any of the city through all the Palio crowds, so it's worth returning during quieter times.

I've become increasingly hooked on the rich undercurrents of Siena's contrade with each visit. For all the vibrancy of the Palio, these powerful communities have an otherwise fairly unobtrusive existence. They don't pander to the visiting tourist trade, so to appreciate what and precisely where they are you have to sharpen your observational skills. All of which adds to the joy of being in Siena.

I was en route to a contrada's chapel and museum when I found myself in the neighbourhood of the rhinos. Every contrada has what is effectively a parish church where important events are marked. Before the start of the Palio, for example, the contrada's horse will come here to be blessed, usually from the church steps, but in some cases horses have been known to be led clip-clopping right up to the altar. There's a personal dimension, too. Residents of old Siena are born into a contrada and baptised with due ceremony at its church.

Close to the chapel, each contrada also has a small museum and a fountain, from which wine spouts dramatically whenever their team wins the Palio. And, as if to emphasise how much the contrade are continuing to function in the modern world, the fountains are crowned with a contemporary sculpture of the relevant emblem.

I'd been particularly intrigued as to why a rhino had been chosen as a symbol and was hoping to find out more at the museum and chapel. The contrada in question is called "Selva", or Forest, and although an oak tree features on the insignia, the rhino in front of it dominates. I went to little Piazzetta della Selva, off which lies Contrada della Selva's fountain, museum and church, the Oratorio di San Sebastiano.

The building dates back to the late 15th century and was constructed for the city's weaver's guild, which subsequently revised and embellished it in the 1650s. It was donated to the contrada in 1810.

Its fresco-filled interior features works by Sienese artists Francesco di Giorgio Martini and Rutilio Manetti and is hung, here and there, with the contrada's banners. Contrada della Selva's small museum lies in its crypt, where I had made an appointment with the caretaker. He proudly took me around the eclectic collection of religious art works, medals and memorabilia. And why the rhino emblem? "Aah, it's symbolic of strength and of the wild," the caretaker explained. And with that he showed me the trophy of what was then their latest Palio win, on 16 August 2006.

So it was with a sense of great pride that I noted the results of this year's July race, when Selva horse and rider triumphed once again. The rhinos of Siena can hold their heads up high – until the next Palio race is run on Monday.

Travel essentials: Siena

Getting there

The closest airport is Florence, which is served by Meridiana (0870 224 3711; meridiana.it) from Gatwick. n Pisa, 89km away, is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and Jet2.com (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).

More information

Siena's main tourist office is at Il Campo 56 (00 39 05 77 280 551; terresiena.it) and can supply maps and further details of the contrade. Visits to their churches and museums are usually by appointment. For an online list of the 17 contrade with their individual websites and contact points visit www.aboutsiena.com/ palio-of-Siena.html

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