The Palio is a horse race held around the medieval square of the Piazza del Campo in Siena, on July the 2nd and August the 16th every year.
What is the "Palio di Siena"?
Though this historic race is now synonymous with the word "Palio" in everyday Italian "Palio" just means prize - and particularly a prize awarded for a race. In this case the prize is a painting, affectionately called "Cencio" ('cloth' or 'old cloth') by the sienese themselves.
The riders race bareback on a circular track around the square, with the stone flagstones covered in ochre tufa sand, and the corners cushioned with mattresses. Accidents are common and the race has a real medieval feel to it, with danger embraced as part of the event.
When did the Palio start?
The earliest traces of this historic race can be found in the twelfth century, when a longer, different course was used, with the horses and riders racing uphill through the city to the old Duomo (before the current Cathedral was built). By the thirteenth century the race, which was still run only once a year, had been associated with the celebrations for Santa Maria Assunta, the patron saint of the city, and was part of a whole series of festivals and events.
In the beginning only noble-men were permitted to race but by the sixteenth century the race had become a more popular event, with rivality between the 'Contrade' or areas of the city, overtaking the personal competition between the noble families. Games were devised between the contrade, and the whole population of the city became much more involved. By the seventeenth century the race had been moved onto the shell-like square, the "Piazza del Campo" and was run around the edge of the square rather than along the previous tortuous and narrow course through the alleys of the medieval city. The first race on the square was held on the 2nd of July, 1652, while the first July Palio dedicated to the Madonna of Provenzano was raced in 1656.
The second Palio in mid-August was started in the mid eighteenth-century, with the dates for both races officially recorded in Siena's archives in 1774. The official rules for the race were written down in 1721, while the borders of the contrade were recorded in 1729.
How can I see the Palio?
Watching the Palio from the centre of the square is free for everyone - but is not for the faint-hearted; you'll need to enter the square before the cerimonies start and cannot leave until the race is over. When the race starts the crowds flux and flow as the horses and riders speed around the square, and you can get quite squashed in the excitement!
Tickets for the Palio
To see the race in comfort, you'll need a ticket to one of the private windows, terraces or grandstands around the square and they're not cheap, normally starting at around €250 per person. We can help you find and buy tickets if you have booked your villa with us, just ask your agent.
Where can I stay near Siena?
If you'd like to see the Palio, staying in a villa near Siena is a great way to experience it - you can go into the medieval city for the excitement of the event, but have a private swimming pool and garden to return to and relax in.
Fienile, luxury villa for 10 near Siena
Fienile is a villa perfect for a relaxing and luxurious Tuscan holiday. Set in the green hills of Chianti and within easy distance from Siena, Il Fienile has all the ingredients of classic Tuscan villas plus some luxury extras like the sauna and Jacuzzi. €8190 per week.
Villa Ascarello, historic villa by Siena
Driving up along the quiet lane approaching Villa Ascarello, past vineyards and olive trees, it is hard to believe how very close this prestigious villa is to Siena, and yet, when you arrive, drive through the gateway flanked by two palm trees, and step out onto the broad terrace at the side of the villa, there is Siena across the valley - you can almost reach out and touch its evocative silhouettes!
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