Palio Di Siena

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Siena’s Palio is arguably Italy’s most renowned annual sporting event. However, the enthusiasm for this traditional horse race is not so much about the race itself, which lasts just 75 seconds on average, but the pageantry and tradition that surrounds it.

Italy’s most renowned annual sporting event

The race, which is held in honour of the Virgin Mary, takes place twice yearly: on the 2nd of July and the 16th of August. Ten of Siena’s seventeen districts (contradaiolis) are represented in the race by one horse and jockey each. Of the ten places that are available, seven are automatically allocated to the districts that did not compete in the previous event, while the remaining three are drawn by lot.

Siena’s, Piazza del Campo

While the contemporary Palio attracts a lot of tourists, it was by no specifically conceived as a tourist event. Unlike many of Italy’s joists and fairs, which are not quite as medieval as tourism marketers would have visitors believe, the Palio has a long, uninterrupted history as a part of civil life in Siena’s, Piazza del Campo, and is most certainly not staged purely to delight visitors. Each event attracts in the region of 40,000 Sienese citizens, around 60% of the city’s population, and these local revellers appear largely unaware of the tourists and Italian visitors from further afield. Perhaps the biggest indication of the extent to which the locals take this event seriously is the fact that, to this day, many married couples that herald from different districts will temporarily separate in the few days before the Palio if they both have a horse competing in the event.

The seriousness with which this event is taken by the locals and its long, established history means that any visitors who are fortunate to be in Siena on race day and to get their hands on a much-coveted race ticket will be guaranteed a highly charged atmosphere of fun and revelry.

The Siena Palio takes place on July 2nd and August 16th. However, to get the most out of the event and the vibrant atmosphere in the city, visitors should aim to arrive in Siena at least four days in advance of the race. At this point, the transformation of the Piazza del Campo will have already commenced, and workmen will be hard at work covering the race track with yellow earth and cordoning off the central area, the only place from which the race can be watched for free.

The days running up to the event itself are filled with many events and traditional ceremonies. The selection of the horses that will compete in the event, la tratta, is particularly popular and takes place on June 29th and August 13th. The horse trails then commence on the evening of la tratta and the morning of the Palio. If you want to watch these, make sure you are in the free viewing area in the central area of Piazza del Campo by 8.40am for the morning trials and 7.15pm for the evening trials.

Palio Season

Palio Season

The other main attraction during the Palio season is the various open-air dining sessions that each district holds on the night before the race.  Trestle tables run the entire length of each district’s main street or throughout the piazza. These are not typically open to outsiders and tourists; however, some Siena insiders may be able to secure you a seat. Alternatively, you can visit the HQ of the district you wish to celebrate with the day before the event and try your luck by requesting a ticket. You can find a full list of addresses at ilpalio.org. If you are lucky enough to secure a dinner ticket for the night before the Palio, you can expect to pay in the region of €50 a head for the event.

Keen photographers may be disappointed to learn that the horse race itself takes place in the early evening, as the light is fading. Although the race really is over in a matter of seconds, it is followed by a two-hour long procession in which locals dress in historical costumes that conjure memories of the Sienna of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries when the town sat at the centre of the Italian banking system and had a population to rival that of Paris.

Visitors can watch the race from three main vantage points. The first, and only option if you haven’t secured tickets in advance, is from the area that is cordoned off in the centre of the piazza. While you can enjoy the race free of charge from here, this area does become densely packed (the locals refer to it as the ‘the dogs’ stand’), so you’ll need to arrive at least five hours before the race if you want to secure a good view. A further disadvantage of this section is that there are no toilet facilities available. If you do intend to make a day of it and wait it out for a race-side position, make sure you bring plenty of water, sunblock and a hat. Given the huge crowds this area attracts, and the lack of seating and toilet facilities, the centre of the piazza is certainly no place for children. Also bear in mind the fact that if it rains heavily within an hour of the race, the event will be postponed until the next day.

If you want to enjoy the race from a more privileged position, you can try and book a seat in one of the stands (palchi) that are erected around the square. Unfortunately, it is not possible to simply turn up at a tourist information office and purchase a ticket. The stands are owned and operated by the various shops and restaurants in front of which they are placed, and seats are often secured over a year in advance. In theory, the price of seats is set by agreement between the town council and the bar and restaurant owners and typically ranges between €160 and €350 per seat.

The final option for viewing the race is from one of the windows or balconies of the properties surrounding the square. The owners of these properties, who are often rich aristocrats, charge from €350 upwards for a place.

Regardless of where you watch the race from, you should choose a contrada to root for. This makes the Palio much more exciting. When you have selected your lucky team, be sure to purchase the appropriate scarf from one of the many souvenir shops and, if you want to go the whole hog, make your way to the district’s official church in the early afternoon on the day of the Palio to witness the blessing of the horse. Don’t be surprised if the locals get excited in response to the horse leaving a steaming calling card on the church floor, its believed to bring good luck. If the contrada you’re supporting is victorious, you may even what to chance your luck by showing up at the victory dinner in the evening. Your adoptive contradaioli may be grateful of the support, or perhaps just too drunk to realise you’ve gatecrashed their event.

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