The famously insular little city of Siena is a fascinating place full of beautiful buildings and artistic treasures; it is also home to one of Italy’s most glorious squares, the fan-shaped Piazza del Campo which provides the theatrical backdrop to the annual Palio. Millions of tourists descend on the city each year, but relatively few realise that Siena leads a double life and getting to grips with the whole issue of ‘contrada culture’ is something that for an outsider often remains elusive. The majority of visitors who pile into the Campo on two sweltering summer afternoons each year (July 2nd and August 16th) to watch the world’s most famous bareback horse race probably believe that the whole show is put on for their benefit, but they couldn’t be more wrong. ‘Il Palio’ is in Siena’s blood and plays just as significant a part in the life of the city today as it did centuries ago. A great historic event, it’s a very human one too, sweeping up the whole community on an intoxicating wave of excitement and tension. To begin to understand the Palio, you must also gain insight as to how the contradas work.