A horse race, up close, is actually quite a startling affair, the full chaos of which one can’t entirely appreciate on television or even from the clubhouse. Up close, by the rails, you realise that in spite of their beauty and grace and haughty charm, horses are big, dopey, powerful, loud juggernauts and in race formation the effect is only multiplied. Now imagine that in a medieval town square. A small medieval town square.
The ancient, pretty and stately Piazza del Campo in Siena, to be precise, which hosts Il Palio twice every summer and has done for over 400 years and it’s run today with all of the fanfare and eccentricity it’s had since it was first held in 1580 to replace the outlawed bullfighting. The sloping cobble-stoned floor of the piazza is outlined with a layer of soil and roped off and ten colourful horses and riders representing the qualifying entries of the seventeen contrade of the city compete in the breakneck, exhilarating Palio.
But it’s not just a race. It’s a festival with blurred edges that seep into the history and culture of this eye-wateringly beautiful city and the best way to enjoy it is to immerse yourself. This starts, obviously, with planning ahead. Siena is a justifiably major tourist attraction all year round and in the summer it’s unmissable. Most visitors, though, come for the day, visit the adorable tiny churches built into the unbroken lines of this hilltop city and have a bite to eat on the piazza before returning to their hotel, most likely in nearby Florence. There’s nothing wrong with that but if you can spare even a few days, particularly during il Palio, a far richer experience can be had by briefly moving to Siena. Here’s how.
Pick a Contrada. As small as the original medieval city is it’s never-the-less further divided into 17 districts, evolved from the ethnicities or guilds or families which dominated them over the centuries and which now are amicable rivals with their own pageantry and escutcheon and flag and representative animal or symbol, such as Chiocciola (snail), Leocorno (unicorn) and Torre (tower), which you’ll begin to notice engraved on cornerstones and arches all over your neighbourhood. Your contrada will likely be a consequence of the location of your hotel and it doesn’t matter a lot but you can enhance your visit appreciably by acquiring a bit of unfounded pride in your new community and the horse you have in this race.
Follow the qualifying trials. The three days leading up to the race itself are every bit as entertaining, with parades and parties and elimination races in the piazza culminating in a draw which assigns ten horses to ten contrade. There are trials all day and you need to stake out a spot in the centre of the piazza by 8h30 at the latest. Note that there are no facilities at all so you’re going to want to leave at some point and you’ll need to time that with a break in the events, by which you’re otherwise surrounded. On the evening prior to the race there are outdoor feasts for residents only but you can buy your way into the Cena della Prova Generale from your contrada’s officiators. You’ll probably need to get your hotel to tell you how to contact them and there’s a good chance they’ll do it for you.
Watch the parade pressed up against a wall anywhere along the route from the cathedral to the piazza in the afternoon of the fourth day or take the opportunity when everyone else is lining the parade route to get the best vantage point you can manage, again in the centre of the piazza, in anticipation of the race itself. After 16h30 you’ll probably struggle to get a spot.
See the Palio itself in the evening of the fourth day either from the centre of the piazza, which is what most will do, or if you plan and spend accordingly you can book one of several hotels and B&Bs which look out onto the piazza and enjoy the unmatchable luxury of watching the race from your window, with a bottle of local wine, a friend and all the comfort of your own room, which is meaningful on a long, hot summer’s day in Siena.
Walk the seamless mediaeval charm of Siena. The labyrinth of narrow streets and alleys and gardens and courtyards that compose this breathtaking time capsule will provide a lonesome and shaded aesthetic epiphany in the midst of the most chaotic and hottest and crowded day of il Palio.
Il Palio takes place on July 2 and August 16 when summer is at its most incandescent in this hilltop town. It’s crowded and it’s hot and it’s frenetic and it should be approached with a positive attitude and an appreciation of sound and spectacle but should you tire of all that Siena can serve as a thoroughly satisfying respite from itself.