Each year on Ferragosto, Porto Santo Stefano reinvokes its strong connection to seafaring tradition with the Palio dell’Argentario, an evocative waterfront competition among the four historic districts of the town: Croce, Fortezza, Pilarella and Valle.
Legend has it that the origins of this tradition lie with the escape of a “tartarone,” a traditional fishing boat of Porto Santo Stefano, from the grasp of pirates who in those long-ago times would circle around the Tyrrhenian coasts.
The first recorded competitions taking place between different crews date back to the 18th century, when Sebastiano Lambardi, in his “Memorie del Monte Argentario,” described “boat races” organized during the visit of Spanish king Filippo V. More recently, in 1937 the City of Monte Argentario took over the organization, dictating the official rules of the seafaring palio.
The individual crews are made up of a helmsman and four rowers who have to cover a 400-meter distance ten times marked by two buoys (called “gavitelli”, or mooring buoys) for a total of 4,000 meters, completing five wide on-the-water turns and four on land. The competition, which takes place in the natural arena of the sea in front of Piazza dei Rioni, takes place with four boats (known as “guzzi” in the local Santo Stefano dialect), each one of which is named after a wind: Maestrale, Grecale, Libeccio and Scirocco.
The celebrations begin early in the week leading up to the Palio, with dinners held for the various neighborhoods and a historic court procession. On August 13, the measurement of the oars and boat wheels takes place and the boats are then brought back; the crews who will be competing at the regatta are also presented.
The night before the Palio, a blessing of the boats takes place, along with a procession honoring Santa Maria Assunta. On August 15, after the parade of the historic districts, at 7pm the real climactic moment of the festival begins, with the regatta known as the Palio marinaro dell’Argentario (Argentario seafaring palio).