Less than two minutes. That's all it takes to make the Palio di Siena one of the most famous horse races in the world, attracting visitors from around the globe to the ancient Tuscan city.
In fact there are two separate races held each year – the original Palio de Provenzano, on July 2nd, and the slightly more recent Palio dell'Assunta, on August16th. Their roots in the Middle Ages, the races are run in honour of the Virgin Mary and the name palio comes from pallium, a highly-prized, hand-painted silk banner that the winner traditionally presented to his church.
The race is subject to a complex maze of rules and traditions and provokes the most passionate debate among the city residents. Until 1720 all the contradas took part – the districts into which Siena is divided – but so many accidents occurred that the number was reduced to ten. Traditionally, the race is about the horses rather than the jockeys, and it is possible for a riderless horse to complete the circuit and win – as long as it crosses the finishing line still with the emblem of the district it is representing.
The Piazza del Campo, the beautiful fan-shaped 'square' at the heart of Siena, hasn't changed much since the thirteenth or fourteenth century. It's the epicentre of the race and the scene of many of the events in the days leading up to the Palio.
For a week before the event, the city bustles with preparations and activity and there's a single topic of conversation on everyone's lips. Then, four days before the event, the atmosphere heats up; there are processions, and the participating horses are selected and allocated by lot to each contrada. And, of course, each team must outline their strategy depending on the animal they've been assigned, and both horse and rider must become accustomed to the unusual track.
Finally, after the blessing of the horses and the historical procession from the Duomo to the Piazza del Campo, where around 600 representatives of the city's 17 contradas relive the splendour of the ancient Republic of Siena, it's time for the Palio itself. The square is packed to overflowing and, in a blaze of colour and noise, the three laps are completed in less than two minutes.
The winning district will celebrate for weeks, while the rest, after the usual thanksgiving Te Deum in the Duomo or the church in the Provenzano square and the Palio procession through the city, begin to make their plans for next year.
Tips & suggestions
The closest international airport to Siena, is at Florence, about 80 kilometres away.
Attending the Palio
For the full Palio experience, you should reach Siena at least four days before the competition,. This will give you the chance to witness the allocation of the horses, the preliminary races and, most of all, the atmosphere that pervades every corner of the town. This reaches a peak in the Piazza del Campo on the race day itself, where from early morning locals and visitors jostle together to enjoy the popular event. The July race is scheduled for half past seven in the evening, whereas in August it will be run at seven o'clock. Seats in the temporary stands that are set up in the square cost between 350 and 400 € and the best are booked months in advance. Many travel agencies will make reservations, as will the Siena Tourist Office (email: firstname.lastname@example.org). The balconies overlooking the square are usually rented privately by their owners, although many of the hotels in the city will try to find one for guests upon request.
Further information: Italian Tourist Board (ENIT), tel.: 91 567 0670 Sienna Tourism Palio di Siena
If you're going to the Palio...
Prepare for your visit by watching the James Bond film Quantum of Solace, which opens with dramatic scenes of the 2007 race.
And while you're in the area, why not explore some of the other treasures of Tuscany?: Siena itself is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as are Florence, the medieval town of San Gimignano and the Renaissance town of Pienza and Pisa, which is only about two hours drive away.