Every year, on July 2nd and August 16th, the entire city of Siena—along with thousands of visitors—crowds into the Piazza del Campo to watch a bareback horse race between 10 of the city's 17 contrade (districts). The winner is given a Palio (banner) in honor of Mary, and thus gets to lord it over the rest of the city until the next race. The following is information that will help you enjoy this special event:
Getting There/Where to Stay
- Siena - the best option is to stay in town, although especially the cheap hotels tend to fill up quickly during Palio time so book well in advance. Rick Steves has a number of recommended hotels in his books, many of which are quite cheap (especially if 2-4 people share a room).
- Outskirts of Siena - one last-minute option is in Camping Colleverde, a campsite which can accommodate hundreds of campers. A few other hotels or B&Bs a few miles out of town (such as Frances' Lodge) might also have room late—still, this requires driving, or maybe a late-night bus/taxi ride.
- Florence - To day trip in for the Palio, you can also stay in Florence. Busses and trains run until around 9 PM, and driving takes about an hour.
- Nearby Hill Towns (e.g. Colle Val d'Elsa, Volterra, San Gimigniano...) - Various hill towns are closer than Florence, although many have less frequent public transit connections. For example, Colle Val d'Elsa is on the regional bus line between Florence and Siena (e.g. In 2008 a bunch of Americans stayed in Villa Belvedere in Colle Val d'Elsa, which was a nice spot with tennis courts, etc.). See the Tuscany page for more information.
Schedule of Events
- Days before Palio: there are a number of prove (trial runs) where the horses are put through their paces. Usually these are not as well attended as the main race, so this might be interesting if you actually want to see the horses themselves.
- 1 Day before Palio (July 1 or August 15):
- ~7 PM Prova Generale - this is the most important of the trial runs, and is usually well attended
- Cena della Prova Generale - each contrada holds a big open-air dinner on long tables after the Prova Generale; if you are lucky, you can find tickets to attend and feel like a real contradaiolo. Note that the food is often not spectacular, roughly the Italian equivalent of church food.
- Palio (July 2 or August 16):
- 8 AM Messa da Fantino (Jockey Mass) in the Duomo - the jockeys all get blessed by the bishop
- 9 AM Provalaccia - the "bad trial run," so called because the jockeys don't want to tire the horses so nobody goes fast
- ~noon - when you have to arrive in the Piazza del Campo to get a good spot
- 2 PM blessing the horses, processions begin - each contrada blesses their horse in the neighborhood church, and then begins an afternoon-long procession that eventually leads to the Piazza del Campo
- 4 PM campo closed off
- 5 PM Corteo Storico - this "historic parade" features people dressed in Medieval costumes, flag throwers, the horses and riders, and representatives of the contrade soppresse ("abolished contradas" that no longer exist); see the Wikipedia page for more
- 7 PM Mossa begins - the "mossa" is the name for the rope that the horses line up behind. The race cannot start until all the horses are in order, in line--a process which can take up to 1-2 hours (!)
- ~7:30 (to as late as ~9 PM) Race begins - and they're off!
- 9 PM+ celebrations - the winning team rips down the palio (banner) and parades it around the city before returning to "home base" (the contrada) for a night-long party
Tips and Tricks
- Fazzoletti - everybody has these neckerchiefs during the Palio to show which contrada they support. You can find cheap ones at roadside stands from 5-15 euro, but the authentic ones are sold by each contrada's headquarters for 20-35 euro (because they are made from better material, and their cost helps support the work of the contrada). Learn about the contrade (below) and pick your favorite!
- Supermarket supplies - when waiting for the Palio to begin, it will be more fun if you have good food and drink with you. There are several good stores around Siena where you can pick up delicious cheeses, meats, breads, and other snacks. Glass wine bottles won't be allowed in the piazza, but you can fill up water bottles. Be forewarned: once they close the piazza at 4 PM, there is no leaving to go to the bathroom! Also bring plenty of sun protection (hats/sunscreen).
- Where to stand/sit - the best seats are in the very expensive bleachers and even more expensive private homes around the Piazza del Campo (€200-1000+ per head). The rest of the "seats" are in the open piazza; the best ones have shade (on the eastern end) and/or high elevation (mostly in the corners). The best spots are near the edge, so you can see the horses close up as they whiz by, although trying to stand immediately next to the railing is usually a bad idea (since the Sienese will muscle you out of the way before the race starts). While the piazza isn't closed off until 4 PM, the best spots fill up as early as noon. Bring along towels or something else to sit on. Il Palio.org has a diagram showing the course.
- Attitude Adjustment - note that the Sienese are famously rude during the Palio: they think of it as their private tradition which they deign to allow visitors to observe. Don't be surprised if you receive a welcome somewhat less warm than typical in Italy/Tuscany.
Each contrada has its own mascot (usually an animal), flag, history (usually associated with an occupation), allies, and adversaries. Only 10 out of the 17 contrade compete in each Palio; the 7 who sat out the last Palio get automatic bids and the remaining 10 draw lots for the remaining 3 spots.
Descriptions in English:
- Wikipedia's Palio page gives the basics
- In Italy's Palio page gives a lot of detail, and also sells tickets for seats around the Piazza del Campo and in people's houses. Other websites that sell tickets include Cultural Italy and Palio Tours.
- The Palio is partially to promote a book and film, but also has some great information
- Slow Travel has a good, thorough description of what the Palio is like and guide for how to watch the Palio)
- One American (Luke)'s perspective (includes link to Rai video)
Non-Official Pages in Italian: