We take a look at one of the premier events of the Siena calendar, and one of its most ancient traditions.
What is it? Where is it held?
The ‘Palio di Siena’ is two horse races, held each year in the Campo, or ‘main square’ of Siena.
When is it held?
The Palio is held twice each year, on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August.
Horses and riders representing ten of the city’s ‘contrade’ or neighbourhoods, race around the Campo three times in a no-holds-barred race dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The riders ride without saddles, making the race a little more risky than normal. It’s not unusual for riders to be thrown from their horses – indeed, a horse can ‘win’ the race for their contrada without a rider. During the race, riders are allowed to whip other riders and their horses, making for rough and ready scenes.
The winning horse and rider are awarded the ‘Palio’, or banner, to take back to their ‘contrada’. There, they are displayed for all to see until the next year. Each year, an artist designs the Palio, so no two are ever the same.
Races don’t last long – they are sometimes as short as eighty seconds, but they are considered an all-day event. There are riding demonstrations beforehand and an elaborate pageant called the ‘Corteo Storico’ honouring the city’s glorious medieval and renaissance past. Of course, the race is followed by riotous partying, especially in the winning contrada.
Why do they do it?
The Campo of Siena has been the site of horse races for over six hundred years, as a way to let off steam between the various contrade – these were very, very serious neighbourhood rivalries that might break out into bloody street brawls. The first ‘official’ race took place in 1633 and in the intervening centuries it has become a potent symbol of the city. Now, in more peaceful times, the race is a huge draw for tourists, not only from across Italy, but internationally. You might have even seen it in the movies – it features prominently at the start of the James Bond film, ‘Quantum of Solace’.
What makes it special?
An atmosphere unlike any other. The city comes together and holds it breath as the horses bolt around the track. The sun shines on the beautiful Renaissance palazzos lining the Campo and, with a bit of imagination, you can imagine yourself back in the early 16th century. It really is a potent and magical link to the past.
How can I best experience this event?
Book well ahead – hotels on the Campo sell out a year ahead of time. Our advice: don’t try to get a room on the Campo, and instead stay a little bit out of town at somewhere like Il Borro or Il Falconiere – it is still easy to get in and out of the city, but you’ll avoid the noise and chaos well into the night.
Pick the ‘contrada’ you will support well ahead of time and pick up a flag to wave, or other merchandise at one of the many shops around the city.
Combine watching the Palio with a day or two to explore the city – we recommend the Palazzo Publicco, with its stunning medieval paintings, the soaring Duomo and the Basilica Catharina, home of St Catherine during her life. For an exceptional meal, try Osteria Antica di Divo (Via Franciosa 25), by the Duomo – amazing Tuscan cooking and a Roman catacomb in the basement!