The beautiful city of Siena, in the centre of Tuscany, hosts the famous Palio twice a year. This exciting historical horse race, where the different contrade (city wards) face off to find out which one will be crowned the winner for the rest of the year, takes place on July 2nd and August 16th.
The amazing seashell-shaped Campo square transforms for the race. The perimeter of the race track is covered in a mixture of tightly packed earth and tuff. Spectators can either stand in the centre of the square or sit (for a price) around the sides and watch the horses pass right in front of them.
A Little History
The July race dates back to the Middle Ages. Initially, the racing wasn’t circumscribed to Piazza del Campo but took place all over the city. The second race in August was organised by July’s winning contrada when it could afford to pay for it. In order to avoid the uncertainty over the second race, the city decided to cover its costs in 1802.
The Palio of Siena is not just a race, it is an ongoing rivalry between city wards that has been passed down from generation to generation of Sienese. Everyone has an opinion on strategy and which contrada has good chances of winning. The contrada with the longest history of losses is nicknamed La Nonna (the Granny).
Before the Race
Though the city of Siena is divided in 17 contrade, only 10 horses are allowed on the track. The 7 contrade that didn’t participate in the previous Palio are automatically included while the 3 remaining ones are chosen by draw. The Capitani, the main representatives of the city wards, pick 10 mixed breed horses of equal skill three days before the race. The horses are then randomly attributed to each racing contrada.
A two hour long historical pageant, that includes flag throwers, kicks off the festivities. It is followed by a mounted charge of Carabinieri (Italian military police corp) wielding swords. The tight formation goes around the racetrack twice, once at a walk and once at a gallop.
The Race Itself
Even though the race is only three laps around Piazza del Campo and lasts no more than 90 seconds, the combination of the treacherous turns, sloped track and the fact that jockeys race bareback, makes it extremely difficult for them to cross the finish line still on their horse.
Riders can use whips not only on their own horses but also on others to disrupt their progress. The contrada’s true representative is the horse, not the jockey. A riderless horse can win the race. Interestingly, the loser isn’t the last horse to cross the finish line, but the second!
Advice for Spectators
If you want to witness the Palio from the centre of Piazza del Campo, make sure to arrive early in the morning and be willing to stand under the hot sun for a few hours before the start of the race.
I strongly recommend packing food and water as well as bringing a hat and sunscreen. If you want to enjoy a little more comfort and a better view, book tickets for the bleachers or box seats well in advance as they disappear very quickly.
The race officially starts at 7.30 p.m. in July and 7.00 p.m. in August. Once the race begins, the square is closed off by the police so make sure you are where you need to be by then!
Siena is an absolute must-see city in Tuscany. The picturesque town in shades of red, still retains its Medieval flair. The Palio is a once in a lifetime experience that requires a bit of organisation. If you aren’t a fan of crowds and chaos, avoid the city on the days of the race! The tour operator I Just Drive organises different private and shared tours to the city and the surrounding Chianti area.