The Palio is very possibly Tuscany’s most famous event.  First recorded back in 1283, this 90 second bare-back horse race through the campo of Siena has been held every year since.

Visiting Siena feels like stepping back in time to Medieval Italy, with the same townhouses stacked along the hillside leading up to the Duomo and the all-important campo (town square). Very little has changed architecturally since the 15th century, a remnant of the Florentine rule, to help prevent Siena from becoming more powerful than Florence.

The Piazza del Campo of Siena is a UNESCO heritage protected site, and when you stand in the square it is hard to imagine thousands of people crammed into the shell-shaped campo with horses racing through. Especially when you picture a standard horse-race track!

On the days of the race, people are wedged into every inch of space in the square, from the balcony windows to door frames of closed shops, and in the centre, all cheering and shouting for their favourite contrade to win.

Crowds filling the centre of Siena to watch the Palio race
The crowds at Siena for the annual horse race

If you want an idea of what it looks like live in action, then watch Quantum of Solace. There is a scene in the movie that is set during the Palio horse race, so you will be able to appreciate just how passionate the locals are about the race.  If you don’t want to watch the whole movie, then here is a section where you can see the Palio race happening.

Palio Horse Race in Siena Italy

What is the Palio?

The Palio is a 90 second horse race around the perimeter of the Campo in Siena. It is held on the 2nd July and 16th August every year at 7pm, with 10 horses in each race.

The winner is rewarded with a silk palio (banner) which is paraded through their contrada, with celebrations lasting for weeks after.

There are festivities in the days leading up to the race, and celebrations after as well.

What are contrades?

The Contrades are the districts of Siena.

There are seventeen contrada remaining within Siena (a simple explanation of what a contrada is to think of a suburb or district), each contrada is represented by an animal or motif, and each have their own distinct culture, celebrations and personalities.

When you walk through the streets of Siena at any time of the year, you can actually see the flags of each contrade lining the streets.

The contrades are: Aquila (Eagle), Bruco (Caterpillar), Chiocciola (Snail), Civetta (Owl), Drago (Dragon), Giraffa (Giraffe), Istrice (Porcupine), unicorno (Unicorn), Lupa (She-wolf), Oca (Goose), Onda (Wave), Pantera (Pather), Selva (Forest), Tartaruga (tortoise), Torre (Tower), ariete (Ram) and conchiglia (shell).

The flags of different Contrades in Siena Italy
Rabe!, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

How do they pick the horses?

To make it fair and allow each contrada to participate in the race, the horses are split equally between both races, with the remaining spots filled by drawing from random.

Unlike most horse races, you are not betting on the horse but rather the jockey. When the ‘horses’ are selected for each race, it is actually the jockey from each contrada being selected. The jockeys don’t even get to meet their assigned horse (which is also done by drawing of lots) until four days before the race.

Even more unusual, the race is done bareback without saddles!

Now that is a real test of skill, but of course you need to see it in person to truly appreciate this medieval practice that is still an integral part of Siena.

Some facts about the Palio

                • The Palio is an event for locals, it was never (and is still not) designed for foreign tourism. Even with the pageants and festivities beforehand. It is however an incredible event to witness.
                • Sienese people are incredibly passionate about their Contrada, the contrades represent individual communities so the contrada they are born into is an intrinsic part of their identity.
                • Be careful of buying a souvenir scarf with colours and symbols of contrades… especially after a race. Locals are passionate and if you are walking through a contrada that is the enemy of the one on your scarf, then you will get attention! However, that will stop once they realise you are a tourist.
                • There are no hotels overlooking the campo, but you can purchase a seat in the Grand Stands (these do get very expensive though!)
                • To get a spot in the crowds for the race, you will need to arrive in the morning and since it is in the middle of summer, expect it to get hot! There are no food stands and if you leave for the bathroom don’t expect to get your spot back…
                • There are no public toilets, but restaurants will let you use them if you purchase a drink or snack from them
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