Il Palio di Siena – a Unique Day at the Races-1
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Il Palio di Siena – a Unique Day at the Races

Colorful pageantry and a high speed horse race in Siena

Every year in Midsummer, on July 2 and August 16, the central palazzo in Siena is transformed into a race track for the Palio di Siena, known to locals as simply Il Palio.

Since 1656, riders representing the different city wards (or contradas) compete in a thrilling bareback horse race. On race days, the picturesque walled city is packed with excited spectators – locals and tourists alike who come to witness the amazing display of skill as the jockeys negotiate the sharp twists and turns of the track inside the Piazzo del Campo. Mattresses are laid at the sharpest corners to protect the fearless jockeys. The race itself lasts no more than 90 seconds, and often the winning horse makes it through the finish line without his rider. And the prize? No more than a decorated silk banner, known as the Drappellone, plus boasting rights throughout the city for the rest of the year. Celebrations led by the winning contrada turn the streets of the city into one giant party, often lasting late into the night.

If you’re travelling through Tuscany this summer, Il Palio makes for a totally unique vacation experience. The event last for four days each time, with the 3 days before the race taken up with trial runs, Before the race, you can enjoy a colorful pageant, the Cortero Storico, a formal parade that celebrates the traditions of the city of Siena – and with almost seven hundred participants, many in bright medieval costumes, the sheer spectacle of the parade has to be seen to be believed. Seventeen pairs of regally dressed flag bearers carry the colors of the different city guilds – from weavers to goldsmiths, through the city streets, ending up at the Piazzo del Campo where they perform a special flag-waving ceremony, throwing their flags high into the air to the delight of the crowd.

Though the race does not begin until 7pm, if you want to watch close up you’ll need to be at the Piazzo del Campo by 4:30pm to snag space – and prime spots around the Gaia fountain, and the Mossa, or starting line, are usually packed by mid-morning. If you have small children, watching from the piazza itself is not recommended, as it gets extremely busy and is standing-room only. Instead, you can purchase seated tickets for the stands.

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Jenny Cahill-Jones