If you’re lucky enough to be planning a visit to Tuscany in summer, don’t miss the Palio, a bareback horse race held every July 2 and August 16 on Siena’s stunning medieval Piazza del Campo. It’s an ancient tradition that is the single most important event in Siena’s calendar. Here are some tips to make the most of the pomp and passion that is i giorni del Palio (the days of the Palio).
1. Book ahead if possible.
For the best hotels, dinner tickets, and bleacher tickets, plan you trip six months before. All can be booked through Dario’s tour services. But last minute options may still be available, if you act quickly.
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2 Choose a hotel within Siena.
Traffic to the city on Palio day is horrendous and even the illegal spaces are all snapped up by midmorning so stay within the old walled city. See Fodor’s Siena hotel reviews; my favorite is Palazzo Ravizza, which sits on the perimeter of the city.
3. Align yourself with a contrada.
Siena is divided into seventeen contrade (districts) each with its own mascot, colors, anthems, and governing body. Each member of your party should choose one of the year’s ten racing contrade, and become its partisan by buying and wearing their fazzoletto (neckerchiefs), learning about their alliances, rivalries, and history, and encouraging competition.
4. See the extraction of the horses and the pre-race trials.
Three days before the Palio, don’t miss the distribution of the horses by lottery. You’ll know which are the favored horses by the explosion of joy and song that erupts when one of them is chosen. That same evening, the jockeys and their newly assigned mounts team up for the first prova (trial). Trials continue every morning and evening up to the day of the Palio.
5. Attend one of the big Palio-eve dinners.
On the evening before the Palio, every contrada puts on an outdoor dinner, called the cena della prova generale. These are wonderfully celebratory affairs, with speeches and singing and remarkably good food. A table is usually reserved for foreigners—which, in Siena, means anyone outside the city. Tickets to these dinners are best purchased in advance through Palio tour groups or agencies online. Such agencies can also help you with tickets:
6. Buy bleacher tickets.
The Palio itself lasts only two minutes; but the crowds come several hours before the race for the historical procession in full medieval dress. It features some dazzling costumes and pageantry, and jaw-dropping displays of choreographed athleticism by each contrada’s flag-hurlers. It’s worth splurging for tickets to the palchi (bleachers) The seats themselves are small, hard, and expensive, but they provide an invaluable bird’s-eye view.
7. Celebrate in style.
Immediately after the race ends, pandemonium breaks out. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can follow the winning contrada back to its district, and watch the sheer rapture of its celebration. Or escape the crowds to reflect on the whirlwind experience. It is unlike any other city’s celebration.
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About the Author: Robert Rodi was born in Chicago and is the author of Seven Seasons In Siena: My Quixotic Quest for Acceptance by Tuscany’s Proudest People and seven novels.. He is also an accomplished essayist, critic, spoken-word performer, and musician. Rodi lives in Chicago with his partner, Jeffrey Smith, and a constantly shifting number of dogs.
Photo Credits: mrhana / iStockPhoto, Robert Rodi.