Palio di Siena, Tuscany

The Palio di Siena is perhaps Tuscany’s most famous annual sporting event.

Palio di Siena

Held in honour of the Virgin Mary, this legendary horse race takes place twice a year, on July 2nd and August 16th in Siena’s main square, Piazza del Campo.

History of Palio di Siena

Dating back to 1633, the Palio di Siena is a fierce competition held between its 17 rival districts, or ‘contrade’. Each contrade is represented by a horse and jockey that will take part in a frantic three-lap race around the Piazza del Campo. While this historic tradition may be centuries old, every year the citizens of Siena support the event with the same zeal and fervour as they did in the past.

Each contrada in Siena has its own mascot and flag which it displays proudly throughout the town and during the race events. The mascots range from caterpillars and snails to dragons, eagles, and unicorns and wherever you are in Siena, these emblems will indicate which contrada you are in. Within each district, you can also find a museum that showcases its history and, of course, its victories in the Palio di Siena. If you were to live within Siena however, you wouldn’t automatically become a part of a contrada. You must be born in the area to be considered a member, and many of the contrada baptise their newly born members in the local fountains.

Before the big events, the square must first be transformed into a racetrack. Clay is packed on top of the paved piazza and raised seating is erected around the outside ready for the thousands of spectators. When you see this incredible racetrack, it will be hard to believe that the piazza ever existed.

The Palio di Siena is steeped in tradition and during the 4 days leading up to the race, these rituals are adhered to just as they have been for 700 years. The first ritual is the horse lottery or ‘tratta’, where each contrada’s jockey is paired with a horse. The horses are all known by the competitors and each district is hoping not to draw the outsider. Saying that, it is not always the favourite horse that wins the race, outsiders have been known to put in a spectacular performance on race day.

The following days leading up to the Palio di Siena are filled with preparations including trial races where jockeys get the chance to put their steeds to the test. Jockeys ride their horses bareback in the race so you can imagine that each practice lap is an exhausting (and perhaps somewhat painful) experience. ‘Mixed-marriage’ couples are also encouraged to separate for the days leading up to the race if their opposing contrade both have a horse in contention. The night before the big event, grand feasts are held for the members of the various contrade with trestle tables running the length of the city’s main streets. These traditions have been upheld and enforced over so many years that experiencing this incredible event is like stepping back in time.

Race day

Race Day

When the big day arrives, the tension is palpable as each contrade goes about their rituals in the lead up to the race. Though there are 17 districts, only 10 complete in each race. So, the 7 that did not compete in the first Palio in July will race in August with the remaining 3 riders selected at random.

Unlike some of Italy’s supposedly ‘Medieval’ fairs, pageants and jousts, this race is no tourist-board invention and certainly not staged for the benefit of visitors. As a matter of fact, the 40,000+ Sienese who pour into the square on race day are mostly unaware of the 20,000 local and international guests! They are solely here to support their contrada with their whole heart and soul.

During the day, the ceremonial guard dons their battle dress with some men in colourful, ceremonial clothes while others are adorned in full armour. The districts then parade through the town towards their chapel to bless their horse and pray for its successful completion of the course. When every religious and traditional custom has been completed, the contrada and their supporters march towards the square, ready to witness the much-anticipated competition.

In the moments leading up to the start of the race, the horses and jockeys line up between 2 pieces of rope and the crowd falls into almost complete silence. As the race begins, the spectators come to life, cheering on their horse with all the energy they can muster, hoping that it will speed their competitor along. The 3 laps are completed in about 75 seconds and as the winner crosses the finish line the crowd erupts into tumultuous applause and celebration. The winner is then paraded ceremoniously to the duomo. The prize for the winning contrada is the ‘Drappellone’, a large painted silk canvas that is designed by a different artist each year. The canvas is then exhibited proudly within their district museum.

When can you see the Palio di Siena?

The first race, the Palio della Madonna di Provenzano, takes place on the 2nd of July and the second race, the Palio della Assunta, takes place on the 16th of August. It is highly recommended for you to arrive in Siena at least four days prior to the race! By this time, you’ll observe that Piazza del Campo has already been transformed into a racetrack, and the workmen are still busy adding the finishing touches to the magnificent space. It is also a great idea to choose a contrada to support, after all it’s much more fun to have a contender to cheer on!

Pro tip: In order to secure the ticket to one of these tables, it is advised to turn up a day or so before at the Head Quarter of your chosen contrada and manually ask them for the dinner ticket that typically costs around €50 per head.

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