Il Palio di Siena – Medieval horse racing in Tuscany

Il Palio di Siena – Medieval horse racing in Tuscany

Twice every year in July and August, Il Palio di Siena, medieval horse racing in Tuscany takes over the beautiful and peaceful Siena. The inhabitants cover the tiled road of the central square in sand, and give their town over to this fiesta of bare-back horse racing. It’s a tradition that can be traced back to at least 1644. There are 17 Sienese districts, with 10 selected for the race.

The rivalry builds up during the weeks before and culminating on race day. They jealously guard and protect the horses and the riders from any interference from a rival district. This is not just pageantry for the tourists flooding in by their thousands to witness, it is a local matter of pride. The flags. The drums. The singing. The flamboyant and extravagant  17th century clothing.

All day, huge flags are expertly twirled and drums beaten as the teams parade through the town.

The horses and their retinues are led into Siena’s fantastic blue and white two-tone Duomo di Siena (translation Siena Cathedral) to be blessed.

Il Palio di Siena - Duomo di Siena

The impressive front facade of the Duomo di Siena.

Il Palio di Siena - Duomo di Siena dome and tower

The dome and tower of the Duomo di Siena

The whole town is out, the police, the military, and everyone get into the swing.

Il Palio di Siena pageantry

The teams arrive and the horses are led into the cathedral itself.

Apparently it’s also lucky if the horse relieves itself in the cathedral (although not sure it is that lucky for those coming behind or who have to clean up – this could be just an fishy old tale for the tourists – like when a bird manages to land its droppings on you. My grandmother always used to say that was lucky!

Once blessed, everyone races over to the Piazzo to get a good view.

Il Palio di Siena crowds

More than 60,000 (less than a third tourists) crowd into Piazzo del Campo, into seats, hanging off balconies, and in the centre of the Piazzo.

The atmosphere is as fierce as any derby day football match. And then the singing starts. What seems to be strange is that each district sings exactly the same song. Until you realise that it’s a competition. Who can scream the loudest. If you enjoy crowds and mayhem this is for you!

So I guess you are wondering, “ok, so what about the race itself?”. Well, I haven’t gotten to the really exciting bit yet.

The sweeping of the sand to remove any stray rubbish from the course.

Il Palio di Siena sweeping the track

Il Palio di Siena clean track

And they do a marvellous job!

Finally, after hours of pageantry… the horses are led out on to the course.

Il Palio di Siena crowd watching the horses arrival


And a couple of laps and 75 seconds later, it’s all over. The winning horse takes the spoils (I couldn’t see which district) and everyone goes home happy! There goes another Il Palio di Siena. Until next time!


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