Welcome to the Palio di Siena page!
My first book, Bullets, Butterflies, and Italy, takes place throughout much of Italy but Zack Curtis and the other main characters are particularly charmed and challenged in Siena, Italy during its majestic Palio festival. So if you’re planning on visiting Siena, this page is for you! And while Siena remains a magnificent, medieval city every day of the year, I strongly urge you to visit this beloved Tuscan town during the Palio and experience all the chaotic fun watching this historic horse race around the beautiful Piazza del Campo.
“…Now to call the Palio just a horse race is almost insulting. It personifies much more than simple bragging rights for the community. The Palio is a bi-annual reminder of the city’s medieval grandeur and its gratitude to the Virgin Mary for preserving them in times of war. It preserves the past and it boasts of the city’s unique identity among the other Tuscan towns. To the Sienese, the Palio is life itself. To the Sienese, winning the race is to be born again…”
When to go:
Arrive a couple of days before July 2 or August 16, the two main race days of the two distinct Palio festivals. (Yes, there are two Palio di Siena festivals and the Sienese treat these festivals as two separate events, although both honor the Virgin Mary.) Now there are 6 trial runs of the horse race during the preceding days, but the jockeys and their horses don’t try very hard. It’s all about testing the horse on the dirt track while mastering the starting line and the dangerous curves of the square. However, do try to arrive before July 1 or August 15, when each contrada (or district) holds its own outdoor feast the night before the final race. Tickets are hard to come by and most of the contrade aren’t that interested in welcoming strangers, but late at night, the street barricades come down and you can find a seat, sample some wine, and enjoy the passionate sing-alongs.
Just like Zack and his companions, the entire event becomes more intensely fun if you pick a participating contrada to cheer for – although don’t be too surprised if the district doesn’t embrace you as one of their own. Like I’ve already mentioned, the contrade treat their Palio di Siena festivals as very sacred events.
Where to stay:
There are lots of local options near Piazza del Campo (which you can find on any hotel website) but the prices do get steep if you don’t book far enough in advance.
Zack (and my) favorite place to stay in Siena is the Hotel Italia located just outside the walls of the historic center. Yes, there is a ten-minute hike down to the piazza, but you’ll get to pass several contrada neighborhoods along the way and feel the increasing energy of the city as you get closer and closer to the chaos around Il Campo.
Where to eat:
Once again, the Piazza del Campo is the place to dine. There are at least a dozen restaurants and bars that ring the medieval plaza which cater to a lively mix of hungry tourists and locals. And once each trial is completed and the horses are returned to their stalls, the restaurant crews madly scramble to create instant outdoor patios right on the horse track!
For a more authentic Sienese dining experience, walk the streets of any contrada and dine with the locals (like Zack did in Torre’s Maudit Pub on Vicolo della Fortuna and Bar Salicotto on Via di Salicotto). Now if you’re apprehensive about intruding on their territory, try any restaurant north of the Piazza del Campo on Via Banchi di Sopra (the main street that leads you up the hill to the northern wall entrance and the Hotel Italia).
Race Day Tips:
Get there early and come prepared! While the actual horse race doesn’t begin until approximately 7:30pm, as a tourist, you’ll want to enter the Piazza del Campo three hours earlier. Feel free to walk around the track and find your favorite spot, but by 5pm, the police will direct you to either scurry to your grandstand seats (if you paid a huge price for them) or stand inside the corral behind the fence. The ensuing procession with dozens of performers and marchers, the Corteo Storico, will then last approximately two hours, so pack along a hat, sunscreen, water, snacks, and wine. (This is Europe; nobody cares if you drink wine in public.)
“…Eleven people and two horses for each contrada all slowly marching while the flag throwers performed their flourishes and throws with incredible precision. Drummers beat and the Palio band blared on. The haze of sight and sound numbed the senses in a never-ending display of pageantry. It pulsated and it brayed and it never stopped. The pace was glacial and the mood was solemn; yet somehow the atmosphere inside the corral intensified. Each minute of movement signaled one minute closer to possible glory. It clouded the mind and drugged the body…”
Race Day Warning:
Once you enter the corral (with the 25,000 other supporters while another 25,000 sit in the grandstands), you can’t leave until the race is over. So NO bathroom breaks! And if you think you found the perfect position right behind the fence, think again. The contrade supporters will eventually arrive and push you aside. They’ve been standing in that same section of the piazza for centuries; so sorry, they are not going to let a tourist intrude on their sacred space. So your best option is: be flexible, be of good cheer, walk around a little, and find a good spot in the middle. Remember, because the square is sloped, you can see the horse race from every vantage point.
Now onto the race!
And now the reigning champ from July 2, 2017, Giraffa!
And to read more about Siena, along with Zack’s adventure in Rome and the Amalfi Coast, just click on the links below to pick up your own copy of Bullets, Butterflies, and Italy!