What is the Siena Palio?
One of Italy’s most famous sporting events, it is a bareback horse race that lasts on average 75 seconds. But it’s all the other things that go on around it that has made it what it is. Held twice a year in honour of the Virgin Mary, it has been going on uninterrupted since 1644, with evidence of it taking place as early as the 6th century.
The city is split into 17 different districts or “contrade”, ten of which will be represented by a horse and jockey in each race. The districts that didn’t compete in the previous race are there by right, and are joined by three “repeat” contenders, who are drawn by lot. The 17 contrade are each known by a different name: Eagle, Snail, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Shell, Tower, Ram, Caterpillar, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine, She-Wolf, Goose.
40,000 of Siena’s residents typically turn up on race day, with the rest of the 60,000 strong crowd coming from the rest of Italy or the world. It’s something that’s still taken seriously, too, with “mixed-marriage” couples separating if they both have horses from their contrade in the race.
When is the Siena Palio?
The races take place on July 2nd and August 16th. However, if you want to really have a great time (and who doesn’t?) head to Siena a week in advance. You will be able to witness the Piazza del Campo transform in a race track, horse trials and open air dinners spanning main streets or piazzas. It is an electric atmosphere that is unrivalled only by international sporting events.
If you can, book your accommodation well in advance. There is a range of different luxury hotels in Siena itself, or if you fancy staying out of the city and travelling in, there are options in the surrounding areas too.
Seeing the Race
There are a few ways of seeing the race itself. There is a free viewing platform, which is ideal if you haven’t planned this in advance and can’t find yourself a ticket. It does mean, however, that to get a good spot, you’ll need to arrive early in the morning, and with the race usually taking place at around dusk, it does mean that you’re in for a long day.
You can buy a seat on a stand around the square. However, you have to buy a ticket from the restaurants, bars or shops that these fall in front of, so you have to actually head to these places. So if you can, buy them months in advance.
The final option is to buy a ticket for a window or a balcony from the houses and palazzos overlooking the square, though this is the priciest option, because the owners can simply charge whatever they like.
Pick a contrade to root for, drape yourself in their colours and symbol and have a fantastic time. Head to the Palio website for more info.