Participate in Siena’s Palio
Participate in Siena’s Palio. There’s no question about it. If you should choose a certain period of time to visit Siena try to be present during its most famous and atmospheric event. The Siena Palio is perhaps Italy’s most famous annual sporting event. But Siena’s Palio is as much about pageantry, civic identity and Sienese pride as it is about a bareback horse race that lasts, on average, just 75 seconds.
Held in honor of the Virgin Mary, the race takes place twice a year, on 2 July and 16 August. Ten of the city’s seventeen contrade, or districts, are represented by a horse and jockey in each race. The seven districts that didn’t race in the previous July or August contest compete by right, and are joined by horses from three lucky ‘repeat’ contrade, drawn by lot.
The race is no tourist-board invention, like some of Italy’s supposedly “Medieval” fairs, jousts, and pageants: it has been held almost uninterruptedly in Siena’s civic hub, Piazza del Campo, since 1644 at least. And it’s certainly not staged for the benefit of visitors. In fact, the 40,000 Sienese who flock into the Campo on race day (two-thirds of the city’s population) are largely oblivious to their 20,000 Italian and international guests.
To gauge the strength of contrada loyalties, bear in mind that it is still common for ‘mixed-marriage’ couples to separate for the days leading up to and including the race if the contrada of the husband and wife both have a horse in contention. All this means two things for anyone keen to observe the race.
The first is that you’re guaranteed an electric atmosphere matched by a few sporting events in Italy outside of football derbies. The second is that you need to plan well ahead, as nobody is going to make you a gift of a grandstand ticket. The race takes place on July 2 and August 16.
To absorb the charged atmosphere, it’s worth coming to Siena at least four days before the race itself. By this time, Piazza del Campo will already have been turned into a race track, with workmen covering the course around the outside of the scallop-shaped piazza in yellow earth and staking out the central area which is the only free vantage point.
In the days leading up to the Palio, you can witness la tratta (the selection of the horses, around midday on June 29 and August 13), and the six horse trials that take place from the evening of la tratta day to the morning of Palio day. To watch these, make sure you’re in the cordoned-off area in the center of the square by 8.40 am for morning trials and 7.15pm for evening trials.
The other great Palio tradition is the festive open-air dinners each contrada holds on the evening before the race – on July 1 and August 15 – with trestle tables running the length of the district’s main street or filling up the main piazza.
There are various Siena insiders who can get you into one of these (see below for a couple of recommendations), but an alternative is just to turn up a day or so before at the HQ of your chosen contrada and ask (addresses can be found at ilpalio.org). Typically, a dinner ticket costs around €50 per head.
To the despair of photographers, the race itself takes place just as the day’s light is fading, after a seemingly endless melée in which horses and riders jockey for position behind the canapa, or starter’s rope. It’s preceded by a two-hour-long procession in historical costume which evokes the glory days of the Sienese Republic in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when it was the center of the Italian banking system and had the same population as Paris. More