Sienese Palio Survival Guide

Written by Brenna Sullivan (University of Virginia) Student Correspondent CET Siena, Summer 2017

I fear the Palio may seem over used, but I am still trying to process what the heck happened last night, so I am going to write on it anyway.

Spectators under a strange sky.

Preparations for the Palio begin long before you even arrive in Siena.  In the first month of your stay, you will become an expert flag-ducker and the sound of drums will enter your dreams.  If you are lucky enough to live in my little apartment on Banchi di Sopra, you will witness dozens of processions by various Contrade throughout the month of June.  They are all worth watching, but occasionally Onda comes by with a full band, and it is awesome – not that I have favorites.  A few Contrade have events each week of June.  Listen to the members sing at dinner together and keep an ear out for talk of parties you can attend.  There is nothing like dancing outside on the first night of summer.

There are a series of trails the week of the Palio.  The first set, which determine which horses will run in the Palio, are intense to the point the shirts of the jockeys all show signs of falling by the end.  Try not to fall in love with a horse at this point, because only a third will make it to the Palio.

Once the ten horses are chosen, they will run another set of trails.  Half of these were rained out this year, but if you manage to wake up for the 9 am trails, you will get great pictures and have adequate time to fall in love with a horse that is actually running.

Giraffa’s finest flag throwers show off in the streets of Siena.

Being my first Palio, I was advised to arrive in the Piazza del Campo hours early on Palio day to ensure a good spot, even if it meant missing part of the parade.  Luckily, I had friends who followed this advice, while I followed around (well really joined) the parade of the Aquila for hours.  It was not until we walked before the Bishop that I was convinced we were not being lead to the horse blessing and broke off towards the Campo.

It is really hard to get into a horse blessing, so if you manage this, please tell me how.

I recommend watching near the San Martino curve because you have a good view of the flag-throwers demonstration, the place many jockeys fall, and the finish line, while still being near the gate closest to where the horses walk out at the end.  Then again, that’s the only place I watched from, so perhaps there is a better angle elsewhere. If you choose to watch the Prove and/or the Palio from the inside the piazza, you will be locked in for hours.  I found this mildly traumatic, but felt less like a sardine than expected.

There are no bathrooms inside the Piazza Del Campo!

The hours locked inside the piazza will test your patience, especially if Tartuca’s horse refuses to line up at the starting line (poor guy), so bring snacks and a maybe a book.

Wear Sunscreen!

Small children leaning out of 5th story windows provide a concerning distraction, but try not to worry about them, they are used to life without guardrails. The cannon will scare you every single time it goes off.  Even if you think you are prepared, you still jump. As far as I can tell whistling both means: “We need medical attention!” and “Let’s get this race going!” so stay alert but not alarmed, if that’s possible.

You will be advised to be cautious about entering the course directly after the completion of the race.  This is sound advice, as I found myself vaulting onto a barrier to avoid being smashed into it by a spooked horse.  It was a scary, but I am still glad I was in the center of it all.

The prized Palio being carried through the streets of the winning Contrada in Siena.

My friend’s host dad says to go to the winning Contrada right after the Palio, because as the night and drinking progresses, they may be less open to strangers.  He is right, there is no comparison to the streets of the winning Contrada in the hours that follow the Palio, but I was pleasantly surprised to find I was not kicked out around midnight.  Instead, I was welcomed under the laurel leaves by Contrada members as we processed through the streets of Siena and across the campo at 2:30 am.  It was one of the coolest moments of my life.

I think the host dad’s real point was respect.  Contrade are families.  They grow up eating dinners, singing, and celebrating together.  It is a type of community I have seen nowhere else in the world.  It seems natural to want to be a part of one, and thus begins the struggle to find a balance between integrating into their way of life and respecting that you are only a visitor.  Always yield to members in parades, and if you sense you are out of place, give space.  Respect their emotional connection to the Palio; it creates the energy that makes the day feel special for all us spectators.

Finally, you will want to see this again in your life.  As soon as you decide to come on this program, you might as well start planning a return visit.

P.S. Try to remember to do your Italian homework, class the following morning will be hard enough as is.