Summer in Tuscany 2012: Siena’s Medieval Palio

Il Campo cleared for the race

If our family had to choose a favorite day in Italy, I suspect it would be the Sunday that we went to the Palio trials in Siena. I know Cade feels that way, because he wants to return and stay in a hotel overlooking Il Campo, where the Palio takes place, so he can watch it from his hotel room window. What a great idea! I’m in!

When Michael and I visited Siena last spring, I tried to imagine what Il Campo would look like stuffed with sports fans cheering for a field of bareback riders representing 10 of the 17 contrade (neighborhoods) and racing for citywide bragging rights. Even though we saw the fifth of six trials and not the actual race (which we watched on TV the following night), the trial was spectacular and beyond my wildest dreams.

Banner (drappellone) awarded to the winner

The Palio is held twice a year, on July 2 and August 16. Because only 10 contrade can participate, the July race consists of the seven contrade that did not race the previous August and three contrade that are drawn by lottery in May. The horses—no purebreds are allowed—are chosen by a central committee three days before the race and are assigned to each contrada by lottery. The Palio trophy, which is given to the winning contrada, is a hand-painted banner that is unique to each race. The loser is considered to be the horse that places second, not the one that comes in last. The race is won by the first HORSE that crosses the finish line—with or without his rider. Although one rider was thrown during the 2012 race, his horse wasn’t the first to cross the finish line.

To prepare a safe track for the horses, the edge of Il Campo is covered with a mixture of dirt, sand, and tuff, which is hauled in for the races and hauled out and stored when not in use. The most wicked corner is lined with foam barriers. With these changes Il Campo looked and felt so different from the placid piazza we saw last spring.


We arrived in Siena around 3 p.m., assuming that parking would be impossible. Much to our surprise, the parking lot with an escalator to the top of the hill was practically empty when we arrived (although not when we left after the race). We went immediately to Il Campo for a cold drink, and some of us had our first Italian granita (an iced drink like a slushy), which became a favorite treat during our travels. Mine was mint, and it was mighty refreshing, although my favorite—after much experimenting—is coffee.

We were surprised when the businesses lining the square, including our restaurant, began picking up tables and chairs and rolling up the canopies that provide shade from the ridiculous heat. In the place of the tables, the businesses pulled out bleachers to line the race track. Apparently the bleachers and the box seats are sold for hefty amounts.

Drummer–I don’t know whose

After being kicked out of our table, we wandered around Siena for a bit and then returned to Il Campo to find a good spot to watch the 7:30 race. Jenny had the brilliant idea to head to the wall surrounding the Fountain of Joy near the top of Il Campo so we could sit for the couple of hours before the race. While the idea was brilliant and we appreciated it a lot during the race because we stood on the wall and had a pretty good view, the sun had just slipped behind some of the buildings lining Il Campo, and the stone walls stayed blazing hot for a long time—too hot to sit on for more than a few minutes!

At about 5 p.m., we heard rhythmic drumming and turned to see a drummer followed by two men twirling the flags of their contrada. Each contrada has its own colors and symbol—snail, dragon, porcupine, owl, goose, for example—which were included on the flag. Jenny and Cade bought and wore the scarf of the tartuca (turtle); my favorite was the drago (dragon). The drummers and flag bearers wore colorful medieval costumes, complete with hats and shoes. They paraded from their contrada to the town hall at the bottom of Il Campo, and then paraded out again, lead by the Palio trophy and town dignitaries. It was so cool! Then came the horses, decorated with their contrade colors, and into the Town Hall they went to wait for the race to begin.

The flags of the giraffe contrada

My favorite part of the race happened just before the horse race when a squad of carabinieri (police) on horseback entered the race track, sauntered for one lap, and then broke into a mad gallop for the second lap, yelling and wielding their swords! It was thrilling!

By the time the horses arrived on the track, the bleachers and box seats were full, and Il Campo was bursting at the seams—just for the trial! Contrade members wearing their scarves began singing and shouting—it was so much fun! It took several minutes for the horses to line up in their appropriate places, and after all that, we had a false start. It took even longer for the horses to line up the second time, and the unhappy crowd began yelling at the starter. Finally the horses took off and sauntered around the track three times. Oh, well—at least we got to see how things worked and ogle the wonderful color and pageantry!

I’m so glad we went. I might have to go back in August!


P.S., Go to Wikipedia for a good description of the Palio, and see photos at 2012 Palio.

I don’t know which contrada they represent

Flag of the “aquila” (eagle)

Flags of the “chiocciola” (snail)

This guy lead the procession–I don’t know what his role is, but he looks pretty!

Palio procession

Children dressed in the colors of their contrade sit in the bleachers in front of the town hall

Riders – the blue and white jockey and his horse won the July 2 Palio. His symbol is the “onda” (the wave).

Lined up and ready to go!

Spectators in box seats–ooh la la

Crowd in Il Campo

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