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Listen to the Pounding of Hooves at The Palio di Siena

Published by Jacob Walnut

Country: Italy

The Experience

Il Palio di Siena (or The Palio in Siena) is one of the most famous horse races in the entire world. It is made so special by its grand opening pageant (the Corteo Storico), the fact that all the competing jockeys ride the race bareback, and the festive and competitive atmosphere surrounding the event.

The first modern Palio dates back to 1656 (with unorganized versions of the race dating back several hundreds of years earlier), so there is a lot of history surrounding the race. The ten jockeys selected to compete in the Palio di Siena are chosen from the seventeen Contrade (Siena’s original city wards), so the race is also steeped in pride and glory. Simply put, it is a huge local honor to have your Contrade win the Palio in Siena.

Now, let’s make something clear right off the bat - I’ve never been all too interested in horse racing, but Il Palio di Siena is not just a simple horse race. It is a cultural event attended by thousands from all around the world. It is one of the prime attractions that make Sienna, Italy one of the best travel destinations in the world.

When I bought my airplane ticket to Italy, I wasn’t planning on attending the Palio di Siena. But when I found out that my travels coincided with the first of the event’s two annual dates, July 2 (the second race is held on August 16), I knew that I had to attend. After witnessing the spectacle, I can safely say that the Palio di Siena is an event that you don’t want to miss if you’re traveling to Italy in the summertime, and, for some people, it might even be a reason to visit the country in the first place.

The town of Siena was absolutely jam-packed with people when I arrived and their spirit was brilliantly festive. Trial races are held in the days preceding the Palio di Siena, so many of the spectators had already picked out their favorite Contrade. July 2 is also the date of the Feast of Visitation and a local festival in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano (a locally revered painting with supposed curative powers), so it was hard not to get caught up in all of the excitement and emotion

The race itself is run around the Piazza del Campo and features numerous sharp turns bordered by stone walls that are very dangerous for both the jockeys and horses. In fact, there has been some controversy recently over the Palio’s brutality, but, luckily, no one was injured while I was there. At the end of the race, the winning Contrade is awarded with a trophy in the form of a banner painted with the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

While the race itself was exciting, it wasn’t, for me, the most enjoyable part of the Palio di Siena. Instead, I very much liked the energy surrounding the entire event and the Corteo Storico that took place beforehand. The Corteo Storico is, for lack of a better term, a parade in which the racing horses are led towards the starting line while hundreds of drummers pound away on drums, tourists, fans, and locals cheer, yell, and laugh, and flag twirlers dressed in medieval costumes twirl their flags and dance.

Il Palio di Siena is by all means a very special cultural event and is one of the most interesting things to do in Siena. If you’re traveling to Italy during the summer months, then I strongly recommend that you do not miss it.

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When to Go to Palio Di Siena

While Siena, Italy is a wonderful travel destination at any time during the year, the Palio di Siena is only held during the summertime, first on July 2 and then again on August 16. If you plan on attending the event, then you’re going to want to make your hotel reservations early. It is one of the most highly anticipated yearly events in Italy and the surrounding area fast fills with people.

Though the Palio di Siena itself only takes place over the course of a single day, the three days leading up to the event are filled with trial races, mini festivals, and a lot of cheer and excitement. It is worthwhile to arrive a few days in advance to really soak up the whole atmosphere.

Make sure that you arrive to the Piazza del Campo early on the day of the event. The Palio di Siena kicks off around 8 in the morning with a mass for the jockeys. After mass, several small ceremonies are performed that can be interesting to take in. The parade, the Corteo Storico, begins around 3 and then the actual race starts at 5.

The Palio di Siena isn’t the only thing to do in Siena though. While you’re in town, you might also enjoy checking out some of the local architecture. Siena is one of the loveliest medieval cities anywhere in Italy. The Duomo in Siena, the city’s famous gothic cathedral, is one of the most amazing testaments to this. In addition, Siena was home to several famous artists and their works can be found in several museums scattered throughout the city.

Odds n' Ends

One of the neatest things about the Palio di Siena is that it can be experienced for free, but make sure that you arrive plenty early (at least a few hours before the race) if you choose to go this route.

Spectators attending the Palio di Siena for free watch the race from the center of the Piazza del Campo. Since you’ll be there for so long and in such hot heat, it pays off to dress comfortably and lightly. A baseball cap to protect your face from the sun is highly recommended. It is also smart to take your own bottles of water and maybe some snacks because they are extremely expensive at the event. In addition, there is no bathroom access at the Piazza del Campo so make sure that you take care of business beforehand.

If you’re attending the Palio di Siena with children or just want more space, then there are more comfortable positions for sale. The best way to get ahold of these tickets is to arrive in Siena a few days early and contact the APT in Siena or contact the residents of the homes along the Piazza.

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