A few years ago I spent a couple of weeks in Italy with my girlfriend. Anyone who has travelled in Toscane has several stories to narrate. We scheduled to visit Siena for ”Il Palio” festival one of very few surviving medieval spectacles of its type in Italy, enduring thanks to the sheer tenacity of Sienese traditionalism.
Believe me Toscane, is a marvellous countryside. We took the chance, so we visited several towns and cities of the region. First city to visit? Of course, Firenze. Our assault on the artistic treasures of Firenze was planned to the last detail: off the train and straight to San Lorenzo, then north to San Marco. Then we would follow the route heading to the Accademia and a date with Michelangelo’s David.
Afterwards, we enjoyed a beautiful sunny day in the cradle of the Renaissance! Piazza del Duomo, is a fantastic place to drink your espresso, while is that crowded throughout whole year. Piazza della Signoria is not that far away from Duomo- Cathedral and it is the best place to take several pictures.
After we spent few days in countryside, we decided to travel South-west to visit Siena. The festival was already initiated, waiting for us.
One officially most spectacular and best known festivals, is held twice yearly in Siena on 2 July and 16 August, to honour the Virgin Mary. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it features a series of colourful pageants, great local delicacies, drinking and celebrating in the streets; and – most famously – a wild bareback horse race around.
Most other displays of medieval folk tradition were in fact brought back to life in the 20th century out of a combination of nostalgia and the urge to earn a few more tourist bucks. Indeed, the Sienese place incredible demands on the national TV network, RAI, for rights to televise their festival.
Ten of Siena’s 17 town districts, or contrade, compete for the coveted palio, a silk banner. Each has its own traditions, symbol and colours, as well as its own church and palio museum. As you wander the streets, you’ll notice the various flags and plaques delineating these quarters, each with a name and symbol relating to an animal. On the downside, competition is so fierce that fist fights sometimes break out between contrade, and Il Palio jockeys often live in fear from rival contrade. Scheming rivals have been known to ambush jockeys and even drug their horses.
On festival days, Piazza del Campo becomes a racetrack, with a ring of packed dirt around its perimeter. From about 5pm, representatives of each contrada parade in historical costume, each bearing their individual banners.
The August edition of the race is run at 7pm (the July race starts at 7.45pm). For little more than one exhilarating minute, the 10 horses and their bareback riders tear three times around Piazza del Campo with a speed and violence that will thrill you. There is only one rule: riders mustn’t interfere with the reins of other horses. Even if a horse loses its rider, it is still eligible to win and, since many riders fall each year, it’s the horses who are the event’s main attraction.
Are you keen to experience the drama and chaos of Il Palio at close range? It ‘s advisable to book well in advance for a room, and to join the crowds in the centre of Piazza del Campo at least four hours before the start for a good view. Surrounding streets are closed off well before the race begins, except for Via Giovanni Dupré, which stays open right up until the flag drops. If you prefer a more comfortable seat overlooking the race from one of the buildings lining the piazza, ask in the local cafés and shops. They’re so rare and hence if you do manage to find one, expect to pay around €220 for your privilege.
If it happens to visit the town few days before the race, you may have the chance to see the jockeys and horses trying out in Piazza del Campo – almost as good as the real one performance.
Andiamo! There’s still time to schedule your visit to Siena for il Palio! Just make sure you will grab the chance to spend several days in Italy during your vacation. That will be enough to explore Tuscany, as you probably have ever dreamed of it..
- The Piazza del Campo In Siena Where The Palio Is Run (montalcinoreport.com)
- Italia’s version of West Side Story – Siena, Italia (9/16) (cartolinedallitalia.wordpress.com)
- Siena (wflower.la)
- Weekend Getaway: Firenze e Siena (elizabethjaneneurauter.wordpress.com)
- All roads in Siena lead . . . (visitsiena.wordpress.com)
- Piazza del Campo (loewenneil.wordpress.com)
- Siena (abelinati.wordpress.com)
- Up Close At One Of The World’s Oldest, Most Dangerous Horse Races (buzzfeed.com)