DISCOVERING (by accident) THE PALIO DI SIENA IN TUSCANY, ITALY
Back in college I visited Sienna, Italy during a car trip through Tuscany and got much more than I expected.
Underwhelmed by the touristic atmosphere of Florence, I opted to rent a litte VW Golf (expensive for a 21 year old, at 90 Euros with insurance) to explore Tuscany and its famous hillside towns of San Giminiagno and Sienna, along with the wine region of Chianti.
I had no idea I’d be accidentally stumbling upon Tuscany’s biggest event, the biannual Il Palio horse race. Before I’d even arrived in the main square of Piazza del Campo, I could see the other spectators dressed up to represent their district of town walking through the side streets in the direction of the center. Passionate viewers were already crying and becoming emotional. Celebrities were arriving in limos and paparazzi were snapping away. I still had no idea what was going on.
Before I’d even seen the amazing Piazzo and the spectacular scene of the horse race, I was taken aback by how beautiful the medieval alleyways of Sienna were.
Squeezing my way into the Piazza, I finally looked up and caught a glimpse of the scene in the square. Indescribable. The only thing I can compare it to was my first Cleveland Indians baseball game in 1988. The sheer size of the stadium and the mass of people within. The Piazza del Campo is much more beautiful than Cleveland’s demolished Municipal Stadium, but the unanticipated mass of eyes all centered on one thing will always remain with me.
I maneuvered my way to a decent spot from which to watch the races. Or, at least scope out where the races were to begin from. I was still a young traveler, and a bit nervous due to all the tension and passion in the air.
It was not yet time for the race. First, I was witnessing a grand pageant that felt like something out of Alice in Wonderland. This pageant is called (I would later read) the Corteo Storico. It involved lots of flags, some explosions, colorful medieval costumes, and more crying. Actual crying. They seemed to be tears of passionate pride; but, as I mentioned before, I really had no idea what I had even stumbled upon this day in Sienna.
When the pageant was complete, it was time for the actual race. Now, I must say that with all the jumping around and pining for a view of the horses and jockeys, I didn’t see much or get a decent picture of an actual damn horse. My passion just wasn’t as juicy as the others that day and I just laid back and took it all in.
When the dust had cleared, I was no less confused. There was, can you believe it, more crying and some disparate celebrations throughout the piazza. It was only at this time that I was able to strike up a conversation in English with an Italian guy my age. He explained the tradition of Palio di Siena to me. The race was dedicated to the Virgin Mary and each of Siena’s 10 districts has a horse entered in the race. The jockeys do not use a saddle. It’s bareback.
To this day, I am not sure why the race stirred such passion in the local residents. I’d seen some crazy American football games and some spectacular rock concerts, but no event I have ever seen, even to this day, has aroused such passion amongst the crowd I was in. It was certainly an unforgettable evening and probably the most spectacular unexpected event of my life. When the crowd had mostly gone home, I decided to stay in the piazza alone and catch the lights of the square before I would drive back to Florence. It was a bit like being at a birthday party after everyone had gone home. Popped balloons and melted candles all around. Eerie and unforgettable.
72km from Florence
Arrive by car (expensive) or bus/train (7 euros) from Florence
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Piazza del Campo
Be sure to get to the Piazza del Campo early if you want good photos of the horse race. Otherwise, snap away at the interesting crowd. If you can’t take beautiful pictures of Siena, then God help you.
Osteria Sotto le Fonti
Food in the touristic center tends to be expensive. For a very local place with excellent character, try Osteria Sotto le Fonti on Via Esterna Fontebranda street.
Take a Day Trip
Hostels, small hotels and guesthouses (some with a small breakfast) range between $30 and $45 US but are likely booked up during the race. It’s easy enough though to spend the night in Florence and make a day trip of Siena.
The Palio di Siena happens twice each summer: July 2 and August 16.
The William Tell Overture (on mandolin)