The Palio Di Siena
The Palio Di Siena is one of Tuscany's most exciting summer events.
This historic horse race has been run since the 17th century and has its origins all the way back in the 1400's. It's not quite as old as the Torre, but it's still a spectacle with an immense sense of history behind it.
10 horses and riders selected from the cities 17 contrade, race bareback around the Piazza del Campo, the city's main square.
The Palio is run twice a once on the 2nd of July and again on the 16th of August, so there's still some time to plan a visit. The whole race normally only lasts 75 seconds but there are many traditions and festivals surrounding the Palio.
Both Palios are dedicated to the Vigin Mary, the first in July coincides with the Feast of Visitation, when Mary visited her cousin Elizabeth whilst pregnant, and also a local celebration of a miraculous painting of the Virgin. The August Palio is held on the day after the Feast of Assuption. In special years, or after significant events a third Palio might also be added.
Though 20,000 visitors crowd in to the Piazza del Campo every year to see each Palio, they are outnumbered but the 40,000 residents of Siena who regularly turn up. Around two thirds of the cities population. The fact that each horse is tied to one of the cities districts might have a lot to do with this devotion. Siena has 17 contrade but only 10 horses race in each Palio, the 7 who did not race in the previous Palio are entered automatically and then the remaining 10 districts draw lots for the last three places.
Rivalries can run high in the days leading up to the Palio and there is a whole system of rituals, alliances and animosities unique to each contrade.
What to see when at the Palio di Siena
A few days before the race itself, on the 29th of June and the 13th of August are la tratta, the presentation of the horses who will compete in the 6 horse trials leading up to the Palio. No pure bread horses are allowed, they are all mixed breeds. The trials take place from 8.40 am and 7.45 pm on the days between la tratta and the Palio in the city's main square. This will give you a chance to eye up the horses and riders and make your selection.
The night before the Palio each contrade will hold it's own open air dinner. Tickets are normally around £50 a head and it's a great way to get swept up in the atmosphere of the Palio and bond with your chosen contrade.
On the day of the Palio the race itself is preceded by a spectacular 2 hour parade in medieval costume, the Corteo Storico. The parade has always been a traditional part of the Palio and takes place between the Palace of Justice and the Piazza del Campo.
At 7.00 pm or 7.30 pm in August a mini explosion singles that the race is about to begin. You can watch from a cordoned off section of the Piazza, which is free, but very busy. We'd recommend turning up at least 5 hours before hand if you're planning on watching from here. Make sure you bring plenty of water and sunscreen.
The other option is to book a seat in one of the stands around the square. These tend to be owned by the bars and restaurants around the square and tend to sell out pretty early, they can also be quite pricey, €160+ per seat. There are also balconies around the square that are even more expensive. Wherever your standing make sure to sport the colours of your chosen contrade.
The race itself is very short, a horse can win without a ride and the loser is the contrade whose horse comes second, not last. The lucky winner is awarded a banner of painted silk, or palio, which is hand-painted by a different artist for each race.
If you'd like to find out more about the Palio we strongly recommend the amazing documentary film 'PALIO' by our friend Cosima Spender. It won Best Editing for a Documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival and received a nomination in the category for Best Documentary at the British Independent Film Awards.