Twice a year, Siena hosts the Palio di Siena, a horse race so epic that it blurs the line between enthusiasm and clinical insanity in every one of the town’s residents. Pretty much everywhere in the world thinks it has the best sports fans. People worship their own sports god. They follow their team “religiously,” and consider themselves part of the strictly devout. They think they’re better than the people on the other side of the stadium.
Well, they’re all wrong, because they aren’t from Siena.
Palio di Siena: Cultural Significance
The city of Siena has 17 districts or “contrade.” Each with their own seal, colors, society, museum, holy patron, holiday, and church. Over the years, each “contrada” has made enemies and allies. While dating someone from your enemy contrada is frowned upon (think Romeo and Juliet), people do marry into different contrade. However, the Sienese always hold the contrada they were born into dear to their hearts.
Only ten contrade race in each Palio. For the first race, held on July 2nd, the city chooses ten districts at random. The remaining seven secure a spot in the second Palio, on August 16th, with the three additional spots being chosen at random from the ten that raced in July.
Leading up to the Palio di Siena, each contrada parades their horse and jockey around the city, which is known as the “Corteo Storico.” Members of the contrada dress up in traditional garb, adorned with their colors. At any point leading up to the race, while walking around the city you could find yourself head on with a horse, flag twirlers and hundreds of crazed fans.
Palio di Siena: Where to Find the Best View
Since the Palio is such a big deal, it gets pretty crowded. You can book an exclusive private balcony to ensure you have the best view! If you find yourself in Florence, you can take a day trip to Siena just for the Palio.
Palio di Siena: Where & When
Both Palios take place in the “Piazza del Campo”, simply called “Il Campo” by locals. Il Campo is Siena’s humming, tower-crowned, restaurant-laden beating heart. During the semi-annual Palio, people cram into this shell-shaped piazza while the hooved beasts beat around the piazza’s edge.
During the rest of the year, lovers lounge and children scamper on the sun-warmed stone. We’re talking prime real estate for picnicking, people watching, and eerie Hitchcock bird swarms. It’s also a student nightlife haunt into the early hours.
Palio di Siena: Fan Fervor
During the actual event, reason is suspended in favor of uncensored fanatic fervor, with each district racing its own horse through an incredibly dangerous course in Il Campo. The horse that finishes first, with or without a jockey, is the victor. Given how tight the bends are on the course, jockeys or “fantinos” often fall off their horse. They are quickly removed from the course as the crowd continues to follow the action.
Though these races attract tourists from around the world, don’t doubt that the Palio remains a largely local affair. Indeed, over the centuries, rivalries between neighborhoods have only become stronger, and the fans only more devout. How many towns, we ask you, baptize their children in fountains that represent their equine loyalties? In Siena they do, and if you want to see real fanatical fandom, this is the place to be in late July or early August.
Can’t get enough of Italy? Your next stop should definitely be a lovely gondola ride in Venice!
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