Ciao! I spent last summer living in a quaint city in the Tuscan region of Italy known as Siena. Siena is a beautiful city, from its sprawling medieval streets, to its grand Piazza del Campo. Siena is most known for one very special event: Il Palio. Il Palio is a horse race that occurs twice a year in the main piazza of Siena. This is a HUGE event, and it has been going on since 1482. That’s over 500 years people! I’m talking, people stay out ~all night~ to secure the best viewing positions to watch. And it’s certainly worth it, the race is absolutely incredible to watch. Think, the super bowl meets the world cup- that’s the excitement level this race has. If you visit Siena, I highly, highly recommend you time your visit to coincide with Il Palio (usually occurs July 2 and August 16).
How it works:
The city of Siena is divided up into 17 districts, called contrade. Each district has an animal and emblem to represent it. In the district I lived in, our animal was la panterra, or the panther. Every year, there are two races that occur, and each race has ten horses and jockeys, which are decided by lottery. The remaining 7 that don’t get to compete in the first race, have priority for the second, and 3 get to race twice, decided once again by a lottery.
There are multiple practice races that occur in the days leading up to Il Palio. These are very exciting to watch, especially if you don’t want to deal with the crowds of the actual event! (However, I still highly recommend attending the actual event. Although, it’s easier to get a good view of the trial races, so why not both!) Anyways, the race starts with a big parade, with all of the different contrade singing their fight songs, to prepare for the race. The race itself takes place in Piazza del Campo. The piazza floor is stone, but for the race they lay down dirt for the horses to run on. The horses must race three times around the piazza, and the first horse to cover three laps wins the race. That’s right, I said horse- if a jockey falls off, which is actually quite common due to the intensity of the race, their horse can still win.
The start of the race is a little complicated. There is an area between two ropes, where nine of the horses and their jockeys wait to start the race. The tenth horse and their jockey starts behind this roped area, and once they decide to gallop into the roped area with the other horses, the race begins. However, when the tenth contrada decides to start, all the other nine horses must be in position. Now, this start can actually take hours, because the horses are so excited due to the crowds and anticipation, so there are lots of false starts. However, make sure to pay attention because once the race finally does start, the cheers are deafening, and the racehorses become a blur. It’s an amazing experience. The winner receives a drapellone, which is a type of flag that drapes around the victor. However, it isn’t really about a prize, it’s about the glory.
Excited yet? I certainly was when I first read about it! Now, the best way to watch Il Palio is in the middle of the Piazza del Campo. Because the parade goes on the actual race track, which loops around the outside of the piazza, you can only enter the piazza before 4:30 pm, so be sure to arrive early to stake out your spot. It gets hot, so I recommend bringing lots of water, sunscreen, and a hat and sunglasses to protect yourself from the intense Tuscan sun.
Standing in the sun for hours not your thing? That’s okay too! There are numerous bars surrounding the piazza that are playing the race live. This is a great alternative if you can’t/ don’t want to stand in the hot sun for hours waiting for the race to start!
Whichever way you decide to view Il Palio, it will certainly be an event you will never forget. However, remember to be respectful of the losing teams. This event means everything to that community, and it is not uncommon to see members of losing contrade in tears after the race. Respect their grief. That being said, the winning contrada will actually embark on a nonstop, 24/7 parade throughout the city for the next three months! This parade features loud music, cheers, and kegs of wine abundantly flowing! Feel free to celebrate with the winning contrada, they will welcome your enthusiasm!