Although known the world over for its architecture, proud population, and vibrant party spirit, Siena is perhaps best recognized for its famous Palio di Siena horse race. Held twice each summer, “Il Palio” is a 90-second... ... read more
Although known the world over for its architecture, proud population, and vibrant party spirit, Siena is perhaps best recognized for its famous Palio di Siena horse race. Held twice each summer, “Il Palio” is a 90-second bareback dash around the enormous Piazza del Campo – a competition that has occurred every year (save for one during World War II) since the first stallions lined up in 1656. Prior to that, participants rode buffalos. Seriously.
Though the event appears festive and joyous to outsiders, the honor at stake is no laughing matter. Each of the ten horses in the race represents one of Siena’s contrade, or districts (there are seventeen in all; the seven that aren’t selected automatically race the next year), and the rider who brings his steed to victory also brings great esteem to his contrade.
Although no money is involved (at least not officially), a special hand-painted silk banner of the Virgin Mary created for each race goes to the winner. This banner (or “palio”) is thought to deliver great luck to the district that wins it.
Although the race itself is brief, the medieval streets of Siena are alive with the sound of music, singing, parades, and feasts a week before the horses even make an appearance, and afterwards the winning contrade throws a blow-out street party that can last for days.
The morning of the competition begins with a special mass to bless the riders and horses, followed by a colorful parade that ends in the Campo for the 60,000-plus spectators. Each contrade’s participant enters the square around 3:30pm, but the main processional does not get going till around 5pm, when a pageant of flag throwers dressed in medieval garb parade through the Piazza bearing the colors and symbols of their districts. As the riders enter, the air fills with cheers, whistles, and songs while the horses are coaxed, cajoled, and pulled into position. The race itself usually begins around 7pm, though the actual start time depends greatly on whether the skittish mares feel like lining up in the first place.
Three laps around the Campo – a mere 90 seconds later – and the race is over. But the party has just begun.
No tickets are necessary since entry into the Campo is free. It’s also possible to purchase bleacher or balcony seats for unobstructed views; however, those tickets can run from €250 to €600. Plan ahead for accommodations in town, as rooms fill up fast during the week prior.
Consider the following tips and facts when preparing for a day in the Campo.
• Food and beverage: Concession stands inside the Campo sell non-alcoholic beverages and snacks. Public water fountains are available, but the lines can get long with 60,000 thirsty people. Many spectators bring food and drink in with them. Sun block is also encouraged, as there is little shade inside the Campo.
• Gate closings: Gates into the Campo start to close around 4pm, but there is no set time for each gate. The last gate to close is the one closest to and just to the right of the clock tower, which may close any time between 5:30–6:15pm. There is no other entry into the Campo.
• Bathroom facilities: There are no bathrooms inside the Campo. Most of the cafés in the square open their facilities during the day of the race.
• Arrival Time: There are no reserved spots inside the Campo, and many groups have already staked out a spot by noon. It’s best to go with several people so there’s someone to hold the fort during food and bathroom runs.
The west side provides more shade, while the east side provides the clearest view of the racetrack.
AFTER THE RACE:
Parties erupt throughout the city after Il Palio, the largest of which is held in the winning contrade. Groups also reconvene in the Campo later in the evening, and stay deep into the night.
Local merchants increase the price of food and concessions during Palio. Pizza €11/slice. Water €4/bottle.