Palio di Siena: The Best Medieval Town Party

Every first week of July and second week of August, the residents of Siena gather for a centuries old tradition known simply as Il Palio. This four-day festival culminates with an exciting horse race between ten Contradas that take place in the town’s main square, Piazza del Campo. This weekend is the second race of this year and in preparation for the upcoming event, here are bits of information regarding the Palio di Siena festivities.

History of Palio di Siena

The history of Palio di Siena goes back to the Dark Ages. Historians have indicated that the first horse race had its origins in 1260 but was not officially given the decree until 1310. The Palio is an event with deep religious significance. The Sienese has always regarded the Virgin Mother as their city’s saviour and offers the Palio festivities in her honour. The original race continues to be held to coincide with the religious holiday of Assumption. In the 17th century, the city added a second event on the 2nd of July to commemorate the Madonna Provenzano, who was believed to have made a miraculous appearance that saved the city from famine and plague.

Palio di Siena Procession
Palio di Siena Procession

Traditions

Just like any ritual event, the Palio di Siena has a number of long-standing traditions. In addition to the annual horse race, a lengthy parade of colours precedes the main event. The procession begins from the main cathedral and very slowly makes its way towards the main square. A handful of selectively chosen individuals wear colourful Renaissance themed costumes that represent each participating Contrada. There are also several designated standard holders for each Contrada who entertain the crowd with their flag waving skills. Prior to the race, the horses are blessed with a special benediction usually conducted by the local priests in each Contrada. Finally, the Carrocio, the float carrying the prize, enters the piazza. Local artists design the ultimate prize.

Palio di Siena Flag Waving
Palio di Siena Flag Waving

Palio di Siena Participants

The city of Siena is divided into seventeen Contradas: Aquila, Chiocciola, Onda, Pantera, Selva, Tartuca, Civetta, Leocorno, Nicchio, Torre, Valdimonte, Bruco, Drago, Giraffa, Istrice, Lupa, and Oca. They are named so after a street or a nearby church within the area. Each Contrada has their own unique set of colours and coat of arms; all of which are vividly displayed during the week of Palio di Siena. The horse race is composed of ten participants. The seven Contradas who did not get the chance to participate in the last race will get priority and the remaining three will be determined by a lottery draw.

For Visitors

Why Go?

It may all appear to be just about fun and excitement for tourists, but experiencing the Palio di Siena is also a great way to get to know the locals and learn about this centuries old tradition. During the week of the race, this quaint, medieval town becomes the centre of pandemonium. Drummers parade around town, citizens showcase their Contrada’s colors, and massive dinners are served all over town. The Palio is a major part of every Sienese’s life considering every citizen, in one way or another, participates in the event. And because of the festival’s deep religious affiliation, winning the Palio brings great pride the citizens of the Contrada.

What Does It Cost to Attend?

Standing amongst 40,000 or so Sienese in the middle of the campo does not cost a penny, however, be forewarned that it can get rather uncomfortable considering people start gathering several hours even before the race begins around 8pm. Once in the crowd, you are unable to leave as well. There are no chairs, no toilets, and no food allowed during Palio di Siena. For a more comfortable option, you can purchase bleacher tickets or reserve viewing platforms from the apartments with a view of the piazza. These tickets go by fast and can be anywhere from 150 euros to a hefty 450 per person.

Palio di Siena Race
Palio di Siena Race

How to Get to Siena?

Siena is located in the heart of the Tuscan region of Italy and is a mere 70 kilometres south of the region’s capital, Florence. Driving is the most efficient way to reach Siena; however, there are trains that leave Florence every hour. The city is also reachable through the SITA bus service and takes approximately an hour and 20 minutes. Fares are relatively inexpensive. Both trains and busses are less than 10 euros each way.

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About Iris A

Website: http://www.travelingwithiris.com

Born in the Philippines, but grew up in Texas, Iris has been traveling and writing about her experiences for well over a decade. Her work has been published on well-known travel sites like Hipmunk (#hipmunkcitylove) and D Magazine Online Travel Club. She has been all over Europe, the US, and has recently started exploring Latin America. She loves trying local cuisine and visiting UNESCO deemed World Heritage sites. Her favourite city is New York, with London, following a close 2nd. You can follow her on Twitter @sundeeiris or through her travel blog, Traveling With Iris.

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