As we started planning our 2013 month-long trip to Italy, Grant suggested we make a point to be in Siena for the Palio. My reaction was, “the what?” Like many of you, probably, I had never heard of the Palio. Perhaps you have seen the movie Quantum of Solace. If so, you’ve actually seen a glimpse of the Palio.
(Disclaimer: When we link to places you can buy our stuff or places we stayed, we are using special codes which earn us commissions on the sales at no additional cost to you. Please see our Review Policy for more information.)
Updated March 2018
What is Il Palio di Siena?
Quite simply, Il Palio is a bareback horse race held twice a year around the town square in Siena, Italy. But the experience is so much more than just a horse race. It is the most intense rivalry, involving the entire city, for one of the most coveted prizes you can imagine.
Seriously, think of the biggest football rivalry (or whatever your favorite sport is) and multiply it by about a thousand. This is not just a school competition, it is neighborhoods, so truly “real life!” Yes, for us, football is life, but the Palio is so much more!
The experience is difficult to describe, since it is unlike anything we have experienced before. It is chaos, suspense, excitement and tears (both happy and sad). It is Il Palio.
Details of the Palio
Siena holds the Palio on July 2 and August 16 each year. The festivities, however, begin three days earlier with the selection and assigning of horses to each contrada (neighborhoods). Next up are trial runs and lots of pageantry and celebration. We were lucky enough to be able to experience almost the entire celebration of the July Palio when we were there.
Ten of the 17 contrada of Siena run the race. The seven that did not participate in the race of that month the previous year are automatically included, along with three others drawn randomly. The horses, which cannot be full breed, are chosen after several trials to find the ten “best.” The final selection of horses is made several days before the race and a lottery determines which horse will represent each contrada.
The horses and jockeys run six trials before the actual race, during which time the jockeys get to know the horse and the horses get to know the track. The first trial begins the evening of the horse selection. While we missed the selection of horses, we did arrive in time to see the first trial.
The track for this race is the main square of the city, the Piazzo del Campo, and the street is covered with a thick layer of dirt. The square, and thus the track, is a roundish-squarish shape and definitely not level.
Spectators can watch from the inner part of the track, from grandstands around the edge or from windows/balconies above. Before the race begins, organizers close all entrances to the square. They also place padding up where necessary (especially the corners), for the safety of the jockeys and horses.
Palio Trial #1
Now you know the basics of what the Palio is, let’s talk about the actual experience!
We made it to the square for the first trial with absolutely no idea what to expect. Thankfully, we arrived early enough (about three hours before the start) that there weren’t many people, so we had our pick of viewing spots. It didn’t take long, though, for people to fill in and completely line the front “row.”
Eventually, the contradas started parading in, with one in full uniform, along with drums and flags. As the horses were brought in, you could definitely tell it was the first time in front of a crowd for several of them.
About 30 minutes before the start of the trial, the track was cleared of people and cleaned of trash. By start time, the entire center square was completely packed with people. What a difference a couple of hours makes!
For the first trial, the horses did not run terribly fast. But, then again, this is literally the first time the jockeys have ridden these horses and, ostensibly, the first time the horses have run this track.
One horse must have thrown the jockey right at the beginning (we didn’t see it happen, but we did see a riderless horse trot by). Being the first trial, some of the officials “caught” the horse and held him in the corner until the race was over. In later trials, the horses know what to do and will keep going even without the jockey.
As soon as the race was finished, spectators jumped over the fencing, onto the track, and headed out to enjoy the night. Each contrada “paraded” back to their neighborhood, which made navigating the streets a bit difficult, but was a great experience.
We did make a point to attend all six trials. The morning trials were typically much less crowded… too much partying at night, I suppose! We also made a point to stand in a different location for each of the first several trials, so that we could find the best viewing location.
With each trial, we learned a little more. And even though we didn’t always understand exactly what was going on, we could certainly read the frustration or excitement of the crowd. Typically, someone nearby could explain what was going on if we asked.
Eventually, we found ourselves the “teachers” to a family from Illinois who was watching for the first time!
The final night trial (Trial #5), was the “big one” with almost as much pomp and circumstance as the actual race. Each contrada had representatives present for the “blessing” of the Palio banner, which the winning contrada earns.
Overall, the trials are fun and a great way to learn about the Palio. But, ultimately, the trials mean nothing. In fact, the final trial (on the morning of the Palio), was the most underwhelming of them all. According to Discover Tuscany, this final trial “is called ‘provaccia’ or bad trial given the little effort the jockeys put into it in order to avoid tiring the horses too much.”
Where to Watch Il Palio
The free way to watch the races is from the center of the square. You will need to arrive at least 90 minutes before the mornings trials, about three hours before the evening trials and several hours early for the final race if you want to get a front row spot right on the railing. The square is quite slanted, so if you don’t get a spot right up front, you can still see at least some parts of the track reasonably well.
From inside the square, the two best places to watch from are right at the starting line or the opposite corner, which is the most dangerous corner, where most of the accidents occur.
You can also buy seats in the grandstands or get a room on the square with a balcony or at least a window. I would guess those are fairly pricey, but if you are not a fan of standing for hours in the heat or if the idea of being without a bathroom for several hours scares you, then it may be worth it. You will need to do a lot of advance planning if you want a seat or a balcony.
The process of clearing and cleaning the track, lining up the horses, and the actual start of the race can take a while, but not as long as you might think. And it is all very interesting – lots of good people-watching!
Lining Up to Race
One of the most interesting parts of each race is the beginning. Getting the horses into position and the start of the race truly is one of the biggest sources of anticipation. The “starting gate” is just two ropes… nothing like a horse race in the US! There is a set order in which the horses line up, which changes with each trial.
The race starts only when the last horse enters the ropes and IMMEDIATELY when the final horse is in the ropes – absolutely no pause at all. As there is no time limit on how long the last jockey can take to get into position, it is sometimes quite a process.
If it takes too long, officials will “abort” the line-up, at which time everyone backs off the rope, walks in circles a bit, and the process starts over. Every trial had at least one abort, with most having three or four.
Needless to say, the final jockey has quite a bit of “power” here and there is often a bit of “game playing” just with starting the race! Typically, the first six or seven horse enter the ropes as their number is called fairly quickly. The eight and ninth jockeys will usually take a little longer, though not usually too long. The last jockey, however…that can take quite a while (several minutes, if not more).
Pomp and Circumstance
While the trials were interesting, none of them compare to the actual race. And, the pomp and circumstance that precedes the running of the Palio is truly spectacular!
Before the race, the contradas parade into the piazza in regalia and armor dating back to the Renaissance. The parade and pomp was certainly very different from anything I have experienced here in the States. Following that, the Italian Carabinieri, a national police force, did a charge around the track.
The rest of the parade was fairly repetitive with each contrada (all 17) presenting a costumed delegation of flag twirlers, drummers, ceremonial flags and medieval armor and weapons. Each participating contrada presented the jockey on a costumed, “ceremonial” horse. The racehorse followed behind.
Flag bearers performed a small routine as they circled the track. While this was all very spectacular, it was also repetitive. We enjoyed most of the parade, but it was obvious that it was more for the locals than the tourists.
The parade ended with four large oxen pulling a platform of ceremonial trumpeters and the hand-painted silk Palio banner. The banner is painted by a different artist for each race. It certainly was a great way to end the parade!
Finally, It’s Race Time…Almost!
Finally, after more than two hours of parading, and three or four hours of baking in the sun, it was race time! Everyone was hot and tired and just ready to get things going. Seriously, it was so hot that the crowd even cheered when a cloud passed by at one point, offering about 20 seconds of shade and relief!
Finally, the horses started lining up, which is always a “process,” as explained above. This time…was so much more of a process! I would say it took at least another 30 minutes to actually start.
With each abort or false start, the crowd got more anxious and more impatient. The mumbles and groans told us we were not the only ones getting tired of the “game playing” by the final jockey.
The race itself consists of three laps around the square and generally lasts little more than one minute. The horse which crosses the finish line first determines the winning contrada. It is important to note that it is all about the horse…not the jockey.
We were all ready to know which contrada was going to win!
Eventually, the final horse stepped into place and the race was on! Once the horses started racing, it was AMAZING! Seriously, the excitement and energy was so much more than at the trials. The race was so fast and crazy that it is difficult to put into words. Thankfully, we had decided that we weren’t even going to try to take pictures of the actual race and we just enjoyed the 90 seconds of adrenaline!
We were close to the fence, so we had a pretty good view, but still had to rotate and strain on our tip-toes to see certain parts of the track. When the horses did go by, it was almost a blur, they were moving so fast!
One jockey fell off during the first lap, just after the most dangerous turn. Another fell off during the third lap, right at the big curve. Neither of the horses went down, though…they just kept on racing!
I will say, as horrible as the crashes can be, the horses know what the goal is. It was certainly impressive to see the horses running for their lives, all on their own, with only a few trials to prepare. The swiftness of the rescue crew with the jockey was even more impressive! With as fast as these horses are moving, there isn’t much time for them to get out of the way.
While nothing will compare to actually being there, we also enjoyed watching the video online once we were back in the hotel room! And, maybe just a few more times while writing this article.
First, understand that after the race, there are few VERY happy people and A LOT of very upset people. The rivalry of the contradas for this event WAY surpasses any football rivalry here in the States and that is coming from a huge football fan!
And, remember, the horse that crosses the finish line first is the winner, whether there is a jockey or not. In fact, when we were there, the second-place and fourth-place horses did not have a jockey…and it was a very close race.
While we were not rooting for any contrada in particular, we were happy to see Oca (Goose) win. This neighborhood was close to our hotel and we had walked through it every day we were in town. We decided to celebrate the victory with them, and ate dinner at a great little restaurant in Oca after the race.
Being able to partly see and hear the celebration really made it a bit more personal for us.
What to Expect at Il Palio
If you are lucky enough to get to experience the Palio, I strongly suggest you just dive in and do everything you can. While Siena is definitely worth one or two days on its own, being there for the Palio truly makes it a city worth enjoying for four or five days.
With four nights, we had plenty of time to see the major sites between the morning and evening trials. And, we had time to enjoy some great restaurants and rest as well.
We arrived the afternoon before the first trial and had hotel reservations for each day up until the actual race. The original plan was to either just leave before the final race (assuming the trials would be similar enough) or take a late bus or train after the race.
We quickly discovered there was no transportation that late and we were enjoying the trials so much that there was no way we were going to miss the final race. Thankfully, our hotel, Albergo Chiusarelli, was able to get us a last-minute room for that final night. We did have to change rooms, but at least we weren’t sleeping on the street!
And, staying for the actual race was definitely the right decision. As I said earlier, the trials are NOTHING compared to the main event!
If you are in Italy in early July or mid-August, I strongly suggest making plans to visit Siena for a few days to enjoy Il Palio. The city itself is worth a day or two on its own; Il Palio is truly a must-experience event.
Check out these links for more information on the Palio: