Siena di Palio is a bareback horse race like no other. It celebrates fierce rivalries, daredevil horsemanship and gallantry while triggering big crowd fervour and raw emotion. A decision to attend this sporting spectacle on one of the two days it takes place annually is made even easier when considering Siena’s many admirable qualities. There’s the town’s World Heritage status, surrounding medieval Tuscan towns and visits to nearby Florence which is only an hour away. Not to mention, the festivities which begin days before race day, and continue long after in the streets. The festive motivations vary, whether it’s to drown losing sorrows in local Chianti wine or ride the joyful wave of a winning horse and its jockey.
Traditionally held in honour of the Virgin Mary, Il Palio as its more commonly known, is not a tourism board invention like many music or sporting events. Having run almost without break in Siena’s Piazza del Campo from as far back as 1644, Il Palio represents deep-seated district rivalry between the seventeen contrade (districts). Ten of the seventeen compete each year, and the horses, all of which are mixed-breed, are donated by city horse owners for the race. They go through a selection process in the days leading up to race day, which takes place for all to see in the piazza. Good horses are assigned a contrada by lottery system, and decorated with their district colours, often sporting elaborate head gear.
The race itself lasts a mere 75 seconds, not including a dramatic series of false starts which can last for an hour or more as riders bring new meaning to the phrase ‘jockeying for position.’ The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line, with or without their rider, and the second across is the loser. There are no placings in this cowboy sprint, and it can get reckless, resulting in both injured jockeys and their steeds.
How to watch Il Palio
Spectating at Il Palio requires prior planning, which will all seem worth it once there. Visitors can position themselves in one of three main areas: the inner donut ring of the Piazza’s race track, grandstand seating on the outer ring, or a balcony or window position. The inner ring is free for all but comes with crowd crush and a longer wait as the race start time nears. The best vantage points here is close to either the start or finish line. It’s first come, first served, and arriving in the morning is essential to secure ‘tummy time’ against the wooden barricade separating the race track from the crowd. Grandstand seats must be booked well in advance, and are managed by the restaurants, bars and shops which sit behind the temporary structure. These are booked months in advance, cost between 160 – 350 euros per seat. Top tier spots are in the Piazza’s surrounding ring of balconies, and the prices are upwards of 350 euros per seat, location dependent.
Settle in a day or two before race day, and get swept up in the city’s festive vibe. Attend the horse selections, choose a contrada to root for and wear its chosen colours just like one would at a football game. Most of all, admire the tenacity with which over 40,000 Sienese approach this event. It’s not done for show, the vibe is real and anyone who visits will remember their experience forever.
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