Siena's PALIO

Schedule and Tickets

HISTORICAL EVENT
2018 July 2nd & August 16th
Since at least Medieval times, dwellers of Siena’s 17 contrade (“city wards”) have been giving thanks to the Madonna by racing horses, decked out in contrade colors and designs, at breakneck speeds around the Piazza del Campo.  On July 2, the very middle of the year, the first race is run celebrating the Feast of the Visitation, which commemorates a time, according to the Gospel of Luke, when the Virgin Mary called upon Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist. The second race, on August 16th, is held the day following the Feast of the Assumption, when it is said that the Virgin was swept up, body and soul, into Heaven.  Sometimes a third palio will be held to honor an extraordinary contemporary event or culturally significant anniversary. On the eve of the race, firelight dapples the streets in a golden glow while about 25,000 Sienese, many outfitted in contrade colors and symbols, dine on legendary dishes at rows and rows of tables 50 feet long. Families gather and share stories while history unfolds before your eyes. Guests have said they’ve been made to feel as if they had always lived there.

The horses run reflecting the symbol of each contrada: the Tortoise, Wave, She-Wolf, Goose, Shell, Porcupine, Dragon, Owl, Snail, Panther, Eagle, Caterpillar, Unicorn, Ram, Giraffe, Forest, and Tower.  They race bareback around the track three times, stopping for nothing; the winning horse may arrive with or without a jockey, but it must have its head ornaments intact.  Jockeys may use their whips on their own horses and on the horses of opponents. The winning prize is a painted banner of silk, termed palio.  Celebrating afterward is a wholehearted affair, and frequently goes on for months for the winner. 
Before the race is a fabulous parade, including flag-wavers in medieval costume. Then comes a mounted charge around the track by sword-wielding carabinieri. A nearby bell tolls at sunset and a local official removes the starting cord; explosives detonate and the race begins!