The Palio di Siena is a traditional event dated to 1633 in honour of Virgin Mary Assumption and also the most important day of the year for the residents of Siena. It takes place every year in summer, on July 2nd and on August 16th. In 2018, the government of Siena decided to run an extraordinary Palio on October 20 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War
Siena is divided into seventeen “contrade” (which means districts): Caterpillar, Dragon, Eagle, Forest, Giraffe, Goose, Owl, Panther, Porcupine, Ram, She-Wolf, Seashell, Snail, Tortoise, Tower, Unicorn and Wave. Each one is named after an animal or symbol, and each one has a long history. The residents of the “contrada” are like a big family and the neighbouring “contrada” is usually their biggest enemy.
In Palio only ten “contrade” take part in the race, seven are those that did not participate in the race of the previous year and three are chosen by lots. The other thing that makes this race more exciting is that each “contrada” can pick their jockey but not the horse. Four days before the Palio the horses are assigned to the “contrade” also by drawing lots. Jockeys before the official race have only six trial runs when they can get to know their horse and its abilities.
The day of the Palio is very special not just for the Sienese but also for tourists. Before the beginning of the race, Siena turns into a colorful medieval city. Every “contrada” is walking around the city centre in medieval costumes, waving their flags, playing drums, singing and making a show on streets. The tickets for the seats to watch the event cost from 100 € up to 500 € but there is also a free access to the middle of Piazza del Campo, although to get a place it is better to arrive in the early afternoon.
The race takes place on Piazza del Campo, the famous main square of the city, prepared and covered in advance with a tuff clay on the ring around the shell-shaped square. The horses must complete three full laps, which lasts barely around one minute. The first horse that crosses the finish line, even if he arrives without his jockey, wins the race. The Palio prize is the so-called “Drappellone”, meaning a large painted silk canvas designed and created each time by a different artist.