For medieval pageantry and a display of neighbourhood camaraderie and inter-neighbourhood rivalry you won’t find anywhere else, you must visit Siena for Il Palio di Siena. Il Palio is a horse race held twice a year, on 2 July and 16 August, in the centre of this Tuscan hill town.
Ten horses and jockeys, representing the ten participating contrade (neighbourhoods) race three times around the piazza del Campo. It is over pretty quick! There are 17 contrade in total, the remaining seven take part in the next Palio, plus a randomly drawn three from the previous race.
Before the race there is a – slightly long – parade around the track featuring many a medieval costumed person and horse. Each contrada takes part with flag displays and patterned tights. The pomp and spectacle was at high drama level and I loved it.
There are a couple of practice runs pre-race for another chance to see the horses without the crowds, including on the morning of the race. Between the final practice and the actual race we came across one of the horses being washed down with what smelled like grappa. So there are many a ritual still followed by the contrade, making this a really neat event to observe.
Fun fact: It is the horse who is representing the contrada, not the jockey. So a riderless horse can still win the race.
For Il Palio itself, the free and non-reserved spectator spots are in the middle of the ring. Arrive in the morning if you want to be right on the rail at the start/finish point, arrive early if you want to be anywhere close, and definitely arrive on time before they shut off the entrance points to the square. You will be waiting in the hot sun for a long time before the race so take water, a hat, snacks and a parasol if that’s your thing. We went in August when the sun sets a little earlier, which helps!
The winning horse wins Il Palio for its contrada – a painted flag that is given straight after the race. When we went in August 2013 the Onda (wave) contrada was the winner. They paraded the flag with drumming accompaniment for hours that night, and were still going the following day.
While in Siena you should also…
Eat: The best sandwich of my life came from Pizzicheria de Miccoli | Via di Citta 93/95. Probably also the most expensive sandwich of my life, but it was worth it. Your bread, meat and cheese are chosen and weighed separately, before being assembled into sandwich form. You will know it by the boar head keeping guard over the red fabric door hanger.
See: Once you’ve had your fill of the spectacle surrounding Il Palio, be sure to check out the beautiful town that surrounds you. We had fun spotting the signs that showed we were entering the area of another contrada. Each contrada has its own symbol, fountain, church and museum. The fountain in the picture above belongs to the contrada of the turtle.
See: The Duomo. Visiting churches is not my favourite activity, but the Siena Duomo is exactly how I would decorate a church should I ever be given the opportunity: black and white striped on the outside, with a starry blue ceiling on the inside.
Stay: No recommendations just some advice: book in advance!
Go: There are two Palio per year, with an extra sometimes scheduled to commemorate special events. We went in August when the sun sets earlier, making our half-day of standing in the piazza a little easier to endure.
Get there: Reach Siena by regional train from Florence. How to get to Florence? Well, that’s up to you.
My photos from the August 2013 Palio.