Experiencing any event overseas can be a great way to get under the skin of the town or city where it takes place, but particularly if it’s an experience that’s essentially for locals rather than tourists. So many events today are staged for the benefit of tourists so if you have the opportunity to get behind the scenes of something as spectacular as Siena’s Palio, it’s definitely worth going for it!
For anyone unfamiliar with the Palio, in its simplest form, it’s a horse race dating back to the Middle Ages that takes place twice a year, in July (2nd) and August (16th) in Siena, Tuscany.
In reality, it’s infinitely more multi-layered than a horse race, offering spectators an insight into multiple aspects of Italian life and a chance to mingle with locals. As Siena is near my home in Italy, I’ve been to the Palio on many occasions and missed it terribly in 2020 and 2021 when it was cancelled – which makes this year even more special!
Quite apart from being the most famous event in Italy, the Palio is undoubtedly the biggest event in the Sienese calendar. Attracting over 50,000 people to its central Piazza del Campo on the big day, the Race is attended by locals and tourists alike.
You won’t be surprised to learn that the tradition of the Palio of Siena goes back centuries. In fact, records show that it was first held in 1482, although the current course dates back to 1659. Yet the tradition lives on, handed down from one generation to the next, engendering an inspiring sense of pride and belonging.
You can’t help but admire how deeply steeped the whole event is in the concept of community. The city comprises 17 contrade, or districts, each with its own emblem, colours and museum. Tradition states that you need to be born into a contrada to belong to it, and that sense of belonging goes hand in hand with a huge sense of pride.
The importance of the contrade is intrinsic to the Palio and to all the pre-race events, including the processions, the tratta when the horses are assigned to each contrada, and an open-air dinner on the night before the race.
Of course, no visit to Tuscany is complete without a full immersion in its gastronomy, and visiting Siena during the Palio is no exception. In restaurants, you’ll find hearty dishes of ribollita, a slow-cooked soup with bread, beans and vegetables, ribbon-shaped pappardelle pasta, and beef from the Chianina breed of cattle.
This is also the place to buy panforte, a sweet treat made with honey, dried fruit, nuts and spices, and almond-flavoured ricciarelli biscuits.
One of the highlights of our Palio of Siena tour is the chance to join the Palio pre-race dinner where the Italian attitude to food is on full display. The celebratory contrada dinner takes place in the streets of the city, served by the local people of each contrada.
Expect copious amounts of pasta, local salami, roast chicken, salad and much more besides, all washed down with the contrada’s own label Chianti.
Of course the race is important, but the 4-day ritual-packed build up to the race itself is the culmination of months of preparation. Traditions in the lead up to the race include the tratta, pageants, parades and a pre-race horse blessing in the official chapel of each contrada.
On the actual day, the dramatic bareback race is over in a flash and interestingly, because the horses are assigned to each contrada, the actual winner is the horse and not the jockey. In fact, it’s not unknown for the horse to finish without its jockey and still win!
When it comes to losers, the loser in the race is considered to be the contrada that comes second, not last, and part of the challenge is to prevent your rivals from winning. As for the prize, the winning contrada receives a drapellone, a large drape or painted silk canvas for display in their museum.
Leaving aside the actual race for a moment, it’s hard to overstate the beauty of Siena. Packed with exquisite, red-rooved medieval palazzi, the city is dominated by its extraordinary shell-shaped central piazza.
Its Duomo is one of Italy’s most magnificent, with a gothic exterior characterised by white and black marble, and interiors filled with frescos, mosaic paving and treasures by Pisano, Donatello and Michelangelo.
Naturally, you won’t want to stay in Siena without seeing something of the countryside around the city, a bucolic landscape of vineyards, olive groves and gently rolling hills punctuated by hilltop towns and orderly rows of cypress trees.
In between Palio-related events, there’s time to enjoy leisurely walks in the Chianti or Montagnola hills or alongside the pristine waters of the Merse River.
Have you ever been to the Palio of Siena? Can you share experiences of other local events and festivals around the world? How important do you think it is to keep these traditions going?