For 75 electric seconds, 10 horses strain every sinew as they pummel the track of the treacherously canted Piazza del Campo. Their fantini (jockeys), proudly clad in the colours of their respective districts, drive them forward in the pursuit of glory and a cloud of dust. From the sidelines in the half-light, a cacophony of cheers spurs them on, ringing through Siena’s meandering medieval streets. This is the Palio – and this is your chance to experience Italy’s most unique sporting event in style.
Held twice a year in July and August, this world-famous, bare-back horse race is a centuries-old tradition. It was established partly to settle intense rivalries between Siena’s contrade (neighbourhoods), and that competitive spirit remains strong to this day. While the race itself lasts less time than it takes to quaff a glass of Tuscan vino, it’s the crescendo to a four-day, city-wide symphony of pageantry. That’s why we recommend arriving at least a few days before race day; it gives you time to soak up the charged atmosphere, see the sights, and decide which contrada of the 10 competing will have you cheering ‘forza!’
Thanks to A&K’s extensive connections, your Palio experience can include a suite of insightful, inspiring and indulgent activities pre-, mid- and post-festival. As a mood setter, we can arrange a guided tour of Siena, including a visit to one of the city’s best museums. Browse exhibits brimming with photos, trophies and memorabilia to gain a deeper sense of the Palio’s history and significance to the local people. Next, a walk along hidden passageways rarely open to the public gives you a different perspective on this historic city, which was its own republic until 1555. Then, learn first-hand what it’s like to compete in the race when you meet a former rider.
The festival begins, and the city crackles with anticipation. Banners are hoisted high, proudly displaying the colours, patterns and symbols of the 17 contrade. Ceremonial parades complete with marching music sweep through Siena’s streets. Old alliances and rivalries are renewed, while the shell-shaped piazza is transformed into a course using sand, clay and tuff. Horses are allotted to each contrada by a lottery, upping the unpredictability of the outcome, and riders have just a few last-minute practice runs to settle in. The night before the race, many neighbourhoods host a traditional open-air dinner – and we can save you a seat at the feast.
It's race day, and you have the perfect vantage point: a private balcony at a palace overlooking Siena’s square. Below you, crowds of Sienese spectators jockey for prime position in the stands, and one final parade brings the piazza up to fever pitch. The competitors take their place at the starting rope.
The rope drops, the crowd erupts, and the horses hurtle around the track cheek-by-jowl. Around 75 seconds of nail-biting racing later, it’s all over. The trophy? A hand-painted silk banner – the palio – created anew for every race. The triumphant rider brings it – and the glory it represents – back to their neighbourhood. The competition is settled… for the months until the next race, that is.
After all that excitement, you deserve a little downtime. Let us round off your Palio holiday with a sojourn 12 kilometres from Siena, in the heart of the Brunello di Montalcino wine-making region. The Rosewood Castiglion del Bosco wine estate serves as your five-star base, where indulgent spa treatments, private wine tastings and idyllic countryside views await.