Siena's Palio is one of the most exciting spectacles in the world: twice a year (July 2 and August 16) the city's contrade, or neighborhoods, hold a bareback horse race around the town square in honor of the Virgin Mary.

Every contrada running will want to win, and they will offer each other money in exchange for assistance during the race - money that they are only expected to pay if they win. Not sporting, you might object, but in the Palio victory that is the only goal: coming in second is a disgrace. So, the Capitani of the contrade meet to make deals, well aware that their rivals (each contrada has a rival) will be doing their best to keep them from winning. While the Capitani are bargaining, six trials, called Prove, are held to accustom the horse to the jockey, the track, and the start, which is unique. Nine horses enter between the ropes, and the tenth makes a running start.

The afternoon of the Palio the Contrada's comparsa, a military company (the contrade were once Siena's military districts), dresses in its colors. Then the horse is blessed in the contrada's chapel, and the comparsa goes to pay homage to Monte dei Paschi (Siena's bank), the Nobles, the Bishop, and the Hospital. There's lots of flag twirling, which is quite beautiful.

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