One of the most popular cities to visit in central Italy’s Tuscany region is Siena, located about 30 miles south of Florence which is the capital of Tuscany. Siena was the native city of the Etruscan civilization, Italy’s first, from 900-700 B.C. From as far back as the 12th century to the present day, the city has preserved its Gothic architecture. It has also preserved its ancient culture.
Piazza del Campo is one of Europe’s most renowned medieval squares. Every year, on July 2 and August 16, Piazza del Campo hosts Siena’s Palio di Siena, an historical horse race dating back to 1633. The very complex event lasts four days, and the race is on the last day. Ten of the seventeen neighborhoods in Siena called Contrada to participate in this extremely competitive race. A drawing is held on the first day of the event to see which horse will be assigned to each of the Contrada. There are six preliminary runs before the actual race on the fourth day. The jockeys in this race ride bareback. It doesn’t matter whether or not the jockey is still on the horse at the finish line. The winning horse and the winning Contrada are the only things that matter.
The race gives you some insight as to the current culture of Siena. The Palio di Siena is not merely a horse race, but a way of life in Siena. All year long the people in each Contrada of Siena who participate in the race are coveting the wins for summer races. The rivalry among some of the neighborhoods over victories in these races is almost akin to the rivalry between the Jets and Sharks in West Side Story.
This is not an event put on to dazzle tourists; it’s strictly a part of the culture of Siena and the heritage of its people which those in Siena take very seriously, one of pageantry and of fervor. If you do happen to be there on the dates when the events take place, it certainly is not something you’ll want to miss. You can watch the event free of charge from the Piazza del Campo. You might not want to buy a neckerchief, each designed and colored differently for each neighborhood. You don’t want to take the chance you’ll be wearing the one representing the winning Contrada if after the race you happen to be near any of those from neighborhoods that lost who may not be friendly toward the winning Contrada.
If you are in Siena in the weeks prior to the Palio, all the participating Contrada’s hold dinners outside which are open to the public. You can book a seat at one the Contrada’s offices during the day, and join the locals for dinner. Their dinner fare will no doubt include some of the traditional Sienese cuisines you might not find anywhere else in the world.
- Ribollita- fresh soup made with a variety of vegetables and wild, native vegetables in season.
- Piei- a type of spaghetti seasoned according to the chef’s taste.
- Chianna- a pasture-raised grilled beef.
- Cinta Senese-pork dishes and cured pork from a breed of pig originating in days of old.
The Sienese people are famous for their production of Chianti so expect plenty of it.
There are many informal processions leading up to the days of the races. There is one in which a banner of the Virgin Mary, to whom the Sienese dedicate the race, is held in the procession leading to the Duomo di Siena Cathedral. At the end of the race, this is also where the winning Contrada claims the banner until the next race.
If you’re not in Siena during the Palio, the Duomo di Siena is still a landmark you will want to include while sightseeing in the city. The exterior is a magnificent, Gothic structure with an interior so extraordinary you won’t know what to look at first. When you experience the exquisite beauty of its rich marble panels and the detail of brilliant artistry above and below you, you won’t wonder why you had to pay admission.
Siena is one of the seven places in Tuscany named a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. It’s easy to understand why.