Twice a year the Piazza del Campo, the main square of Siena, is transformed into a racetrack for the world famous Palio di Siena.
Palio di Siena
When: July 2 and August 16
The horse races take place on July 2nd and August 16th, respectively in honor of the Madonna of Provenzano and the Assumption of Mary, and attract visitors from all over the world.
The jockeys, representing the 17 historical districts (contrade) in which the city is divided, ride three times bareback around the square, in a race that usually last no more than 90 seconds. It’s a frantic race and because of the sharp turns, jockeys are often thrown off their horse. It’s not uncommon to see unmounted horses finishing the race alone without their rider.
It is the horse that is the real protagonist in this race and not the jockey. The horse, with or without a rider, that crosses the finishing line first, is the winner of the race, and brings glory to the district that it represents in the form of the “rag” (Palio), a handpainted silk drape.
A series of picturesque events and a big historical parade, which include flag wavers, medieval soldiers, and a squad of Carabinieri on horseback precede the competition itself. Six trial races are run in the days leading up to the big final.
Retirement home for horses
The devotion for the horses by the people of Siena is such that the names of the participating horses are never forgotten. For the horses that can no longer compete due to injuries or age, a retirement home was established in the countryside outside Siena. The most victorious horses are buried in graves and honored by the people of the district.
History Palio di Siena
The Palio di Siena has a long history and its origins date back to the 16th century when the first races on buffalo-back and donkey-back were organized. The first Palio on horseback on Piazza del Campo took place in the first half of the 17th century. In 1701, a second race was added on August 16th.
Rivalry and competition
The devotion and pride of the residents of each district for their horse and jockey are boundless. They invoke the divine aid of their contrada’s patron saint, and a victory is followed by a months-long celebration. The Palio di Siena is an ongoing rivalry and competition between the city’s districts, that builds up during the whole year and reaches its height during the actual races.
Visit the Palio di Siena
The easiest way to watch the race is on television. If you want to get a real taste of the Palio you can take up position (for free) in the area in the center of the piazza. You would have to be there at least several hours before the races start. The stands around the square are owned and run by the bars, shops and restaurants and tickets range from €150 to €350 per seat. A spot in a window or balcony can only be acquired if you know the right people. Prices usually start at €350.