Siena, Italy: Off to the races!

Updated: Aug 23


When we learned about il Palio, the horse race around Siena's Piazza del Campo, we knew we had to go. It just sounded so awesome - two days of festivities honoring the Assumption of Mary, culminating in a bareback horse race where the winning contrada (neighborhood) earns the palio (banner) as the trophy. After the race, the winning contrada marches from the piazza to the duomo holding the palio and the whole city celebrates.


While we knew we wanted to attend, we didn't know if we'd be in Italy during one of the two dates each year that the palio takes place. Turns out we were! The second palio takes place on August 16 (the first takes place on July 2), so we made our reservations to head to Siena from Florence.

The Palio is is a big deal and way more than just a horse race. It's actually the most important event in Siena and the preparations are serious. When we arrived on August 15, which also happened to be the national holiday Ferragosto, the city was buzzing. We were staying in the Drago (dragon) contrada, which won the July palio, so it wouldn't have a horse in the race. In fact, even though there are 17 contrade, each with its own emblem and colors to represent its area of the city, only ten run in each palio - the seven that didn't run in the previous palio and three drawn by lots.

Everywhere we walked the streets hung with brightly colored flags indicating the contrada we were in - even the color of the light fixtures along the streets let you know which contrada you are visiting. Since Drago wasn't participating we decided to each pick another contrada to support - Joe picked Nicchio (seashell, which we affectionately nicknamed the scallops) and I picked Onda (wave, which we nicknamed the dolphins). We ate lunch in the Onda neighborhood and there was lots of singing going on! All of the neighborhoods were set up for a pre-palio party, with long tables and chairs for a communal dinner after the trial run, and local bars had people spilling into the streets as everyone got ready for the trials.

We all headed to the piazza for the trial, kids dressed in their contrada colors chanted songs supporting their neighborhood, everyone wore scarfs to show who they were rooting for and eventually the police cleared the track around the piazza so the race could begin. (The racetrack is along the perimeter of the piazza and is covered with dirt that's imported for the event). Crash barriers protect the crowd but other than that, it's a free for all.

After a cannon blast announcing the start of the event, there is a procession by the Carabinieri Calvary Regiment, which really got the crowd going - even if it was just a trial the day before the big event. After one lap of trotting, the leader (who was a woman, which was really cool), yelled a declaration in Italian, held up her sword and took off running - it was amazing!! The horses were flying, everyone was cheering, and the excitement was infectious. Next up: the trial.

In this crazy, winner take all race, jockeys are often thrown from their horses due to the tight track and insane, almost 90 degree turns. Riderless horses can even win the race! As each of the horses entered the track with their jockey, the crowd went wild.


After a few laps around the track at a not-too-brisk pace, they left, and the trial was over. The celebration had just begun, though. As we sat out on our balcony that evening, we could hear each of the neighborhoods singing at the tops of their lungs way into the wee hours of the night.

The next day was the big day. We headed out for the duomo and were lucky enough to show up right as the palio had just been blessed in the duomo and was on its way through all of the neighborhoods to the piazza, where it would wait to be presented to the winner after the race.

This was our first up-close viewing of the drappellone (banner) ceremony and it was cool to see the trophy that the contrade were competing for. There was lots of pageantry going on and this was just the beginning.

Of course, we also spent some time visiting the duomo, which included climbing to the top of the dome for an amazing view of the city. The cathedral is quite spectacular inside and outside, but it is a little disconcerting to see such a beautiful place and look just to the right and see the remains of the unfinished nave looking kind of forlorn. This massive addition to the main body of the cathedral was intended to more than double the size of the church but the Black Death (bubonic plague) halted construction and it was never finished. Now it's a parking lot and museum.

Finally, it was time for the Corteo Storico parade. How did we know that? The sound of drums filling the streets as they played the March of the Palio. We joined our Drago contrada as it marched through the neighborhood toward the Palazzo Salimbeni, where the flag throwers performed for the crowd.

Everywhere you looked there were costumed contrada paraders in the colors of their neighborhood, marching bands, flags, even men dressed in armor - it was amazing!


When the brief flag performance for Drago was over, we all marched to the piazza to convene for the race. Once again, the crowd gathered in the center of the racecourse, only this time there were government members in suits up on balconies overseeing the event and making it much more official. The police cleared the track and the calvary did their pre-race run. And then...then...the skies opened up and it poured rain!! The palio is only a three lap, 90 second race, but the rain just couldn't wait. And that dirt track? A river of mud!

Everyone scrambled to find a place to stay dry, but it was impossible, so we just enjoyed the drenching, our feet covered in mud. It didn't last long, but the track was now unsafe, so they hung out the green flag to let everyone know the race was postponed until the next day.


The best antidote for being soaked in a downpour? Tanqueray.


Everyone was still in a festive mood and the party moved to the streets, so we made our way to a little bar to dry off.


We also watched live coverage of the scene on the TV in the bar and caught a replay of the torrential rain that came down, we even spotted ourselves on the video, leaving the piazza, which was great because it let us relive this once in a lifetime event once more.

The rest of the night we wandered the streets enjoying the still-happy mood of everyone around us. We had a delicious meal and once again ended our day out on our balcony listening to the singing and music around us. We may not have seen the final race, but we definitely feel like our time in Siena was a total winner.


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(BTW, we watched the Palio on TV the next day back home in Florence and the Leocorno contrada - the Unicorn - won and four horses finished without their jockeys).









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