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Palio Siena Italy

If you talk about Siena, Italy to a group of tourists, it’s in all likelihood at the least one of them will start raving with superlatives. But instead of assuming they’ve had too much fantasy, you should believe what they’re saying – this medieval Tuscan town oozes out the charm, despite being for the most part invaded by holidaymakers during the high season.

Somehow Siena superintends to host all those crowds daily, year after year, and not lose her splendor. Whether you go to vacation on a day-trip from Florence or you resolve to stay here for a few days, Siena is in all likelihood to turn you into one of those people who gushes at parties when someone mentions the name.

The Palio Horse Race in Siena

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The Palio Horse Race

“Piazza del Campo” is still used today for the well known Palio horse race which is one of the most famous popular Italian manifestations. It takes place every year on July 2 and August 16. The Palio is run to celebrate the miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary near the old houses that belonged to Provenzano Salvani. The holy apparition was therefore called “Madonna di Provenzano” in whose honour the very first Palio was run on August 16, 1656. The Palio was run for the first time in 1701 in honour of the “Madonna dell’Assunta” the patroness and Advocate of Siena through all the tragic events since she protected the Sienese militia at the famous battle of Monteaperti on September 4, 1260, against the Florentines.

The Palio is a historical secular tradition strictly connected with the origin of the Contradas of Siena (districts into which the town is divided). The Contradas are spectacular agonist institutions each having their own government, oratory, coat of arms, appellations, sometimes titles of nobility, emblems and colours, official representatives, festivities, patron Saints, with protectors, delimited territories and population which consist of all those people who were born or live within the topographic limits of the district, according to the proclamation issued by Violante Beatrice of Bavaria on January 7, 1730, at that time, Governess of the town.

Originally, there were about fifty-nine “Contrade”; now only seventeen remain, ten of which take part in the historical pageant and in the race at each Palio (seven by right and three drawn by lots).

Here is a list of their names, emblems and colours grouped into “Terzi” or “Terzieri” (in olden times the town was divided into three sections called: “Terziere di Città”, “Terziere di San Martino” and “Terziere di Camollia”).

The whole square is amazingly fit for such manifestations because its shape is that of a mediaeval Roman amphitheatre closed at the base by the straight line of the Palazzo Pubblico. Besides being semi-circular this peculiar square is also funnel-shaped like the theatres of the imperial age. Eleven streets run into it, though it is extremely difficult to percieve them from the middle of the square. All around the track, perched up against the walls of the houses, seats are arranged one behind and above the other like bleachers.

Windows, balconies and loggias, too, are made ready for the visitors; 33,000 seats in all, but they are far from sufficient and are always sold out long before the day of the performance. In the centre of the square there is room for about 28,000 people to stand, but this is not enough either and the roofs, the turrets and the cornices of the old houses looking on to the square are also crowded. There are people everywhere, even in the most unlikely places.

On both the appointed days every year the “Contrade” – that is to say all the Sienese population – compete for a prize which is but a hand painted silk banner (pallium). Each “Contrada” is represented by a group of young men called “Comparsa” arranged as follows: one drummer, two flag-bearers, with their flags, one “Duce”, two grooms, one page carrying a flag with two pages at his sides carrying the emblems of the “Contrada”, the race-horse called barbero with a jockey called “barbaresco”, last the jokey who is to run the race on a parade horse called “soprallasso” followed by a groom.

The historical parade is a lively display of rich medieval costumes which date back to the time period from 1430 to 1480; their colours are as bright as one may fancy. The procession goes winding its way round the “Campo” square in the following order: the flag-bearer of the Commune on horseback bearing the standard of Siena (the black and white Balzana) followed by his groom, a group of drummers, a group of trumpeters and musicians called “musici di Palazzo” playing the march composed for the Palio by Pietro Formichi in 1875 on their bugles, the Captains, the representatives of the “Podestà” (called podesterie), the flag-bearers with the standards of the “Terzieri” of the town and of the lands belonging to the Commune called “Masse”, the flag-bearers of the Corporations of the Arts and Crafts, the captain of the peopIe (Capitano del popolo) on horseback and a group of flag-bearers with the flags of the old Sienese Republic.
Next come the representatives of the “Contrade” called “comparse”. The first ten are those which are to run in the palio horse race; they are followed by a row of young pages bearing festoons of laurel leaves and then by the seven “Contrade” that do not run (they have no “barbero” and no jockey).

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The Palio is one of the most important event in Tuscany, taking place in Siena, Piazza del Campo on July 2 and August 16 every year.

The Contrade are 17 : Eagle, Snail, Wave, Panther, Forest, Tortoise, Owl, Unicorn, Shell, Tower, Ram, Caterpillar, Dragon, Giraffe, Porcupine, She-Wolf, Goose.
Each Contrada has its own unique emblem and colors and represents an area of Siena.
During the day of the Palio race the city is absolutely full of tuscan people and many many tourists.

The Day:
The Day of Palio of Siena start at with “Messa del fantino” in the chapel close to the Palazzo Comunale, then at 10.30 am inside the Palazzo Comunale you can follow the “segnatura dei fantini”. The day goes ahead, the show arrives around 5 pm in Piazza del Campo, and ends by around 6.30-7 p.m. Shortly the race start at about 7-7,30pm.

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palio horse race

What to Do in Siena Italy

The major sight in Siena is most likely the town itself, with its twisting cobblestone streets and lovely piazzas. But the historic center is even massive enough that there are a few attractive features you’ll want to make time for – and you don’t yet have to go out of the old city walls to experience them all.

What to Do in Siena Italy

The fundamental orientation point is the city’s main square, the Piazza del Campo, around which Siena’s famous horse races (the Palio) are run twice each summer. It’s the perfect place to enjoy a gelato, or just do some people observing. If you decide to come for the Palio, book your room well in advance! The Duomo is a short walk from the Campo and is a multi-colored masterpiece. It was meant to be built even larger, but the bigger church was never finished. If you’re into relics, just outside the historic center is a church that has the head and one finger of St. Catherine, Siena’s patron saint.


Getting To Siena Italy

It’s not likely that you’ll be beginning and finishing your trip in Siena, but if you’re planning just to research the Tuscan region, you might look into flying directly into Florence. If the costs are beyond your reach, the next best airport to attempt is probably Rome’s Fiumicino Airport. If you’re already in Europe, naturally, your choices for which airport to fly into are practically endless. Start by hunting for airfare to Italy and go from there.

Where to Stay in Siena Italy

Staying in the historic center of Siena can be rather expensive, but there’s a more modern city out of the old town walls where you’ll be able to find more budget accommodations. You can browse our selection of Siena hostels and Siena hotels and reserve your room today.