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; from Gatwick. n Pisa, 89km away, is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787;, easyJet (0905 821 0905;, Ryanair (0871 246 0000; and (0871 226 1737;

More information

Siena's main tourist office is at Il Campo 56 (00 39 05 77 280 551; 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 palio-of-Siena.html

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
people Ex-wife of John Lennon has died at her home in Spain
Nick Clegg on the campaign trail in Glasgow on Wednesday; he says education is his top priority
peopleNick Clegg remains optimistic despite dismal Lib Dem poll ratings
Life and Style
2 Karl Lagerfeld and Choupette
Arts and Entertainment
Buttoned up: Ryan Reynolds with Helen Mirren in ‘Woman in Gold’
filmFor every box-office smash in his Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. Now he says it's time for a reboot
Actress Julianne Moore wins the Best Actress in a Leading Role Award for 'Still Alice' during the 87th Annual Academy Awards in Hollywood, California
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Car Sales Executive - OTE £36,000

    £12500 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This established Wakefield Deal...

    Guru Careers: .NET Developers / Software Developers

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: our .NET Developers / Software Dev...

    Sheridan Maine: Accounts Assistant

    £25,000 - £30,000: Sheridan Maine: Are you looking for a fantastic opportunity...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria's capital

    War with Isis

    Iraq declares victory in the battle for Tikrit - but militants make make ominous advances in neighbouring Syria
    Scientists develop mechanical spring-loaded leg brace to improve walking

    A spring in your step?

    Scientists develop mechanical leg brace to help take a load off
    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

    Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

    Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
    Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

    Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

    For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
    Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

    Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

    As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
    The UK horticulture industry is facing a skills crisis - but Great Dixter aims to change all that

    UK horticulture industry facing skills crisis

    Great Dixter manor house in East Sussex is encouraging people to work in the industry by offering three scholarships a year to students, as well as generous placements
    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head

    Hack Circus: Technology, art and learning

    Hack Circus aims to turn the rule-abiding approach of TED talks on its head. Rhodri Marsden meets mistress of ceremonies Leila Johnston
    Sevenoaks is split over much-delayed decision on controversial grammar school annexe

    Sevenoaks split over grammar school annexe

    If Weald of Kent Grammar School is given the go-ahead for an annexe in leafy Sevenoaks, it will be the first selective state school to open in 50 years
    10 best compact cameras

    A look through the lens: 10 best compact cameras

    If your smartphone won’t quite cut it, it’s time to invest in a new portable gadget
    Paul Scholes column: Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now

    Paul Scholes column

    Ross Barkley played well against Italy but he must build on that. His time to step up and seize that England No 10 shirt is now
    Why Michael Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Why Carrick is still proving an enigma for England

    Manchester United's talented midfielder has played international football for almost 14 years yet, frustratingly, has won only 32 caps, says Sam Wallace
    Tracey Neville: The netball coach who is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    Tracey Neville is just as busy as her brothers, Gary and Phil

    The former player on how she is finding time to coach both Manchester Thunder in the Superleague and England in this year's World Cup
    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?