The Palio in Siena, Italy
May 21, 2006 1:53 PM   Subscribe

I'm backpacking through Europe this summer and I just realized that I might be able to make it to Siena, Italy in time to see the Palio horse race. Can anyone offer me tips to make it a great experience?

A friend who had travelled to Siena last fall told me all about the Palio even though it wasn't on when he was there. The more I read about it the more amazing it sounds and I would love to be there. I might be able to arrive one or two days before and stay until one day after.

I don't want to be just another tourist who stays in the background and snaps photos. I want to get into the whole experience as much as I can. But that will be difficult. I'm coming from Canada and don't know anyone in the area, and I speak only a little Italian. Has anyone here done this before? Any tips on (cheap) accommodation or on the event itself?
posted by PercussivePaul to Travel & Transportation around Siena, Italy (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I went a few years ago (around 7 or 8) and it was pretty fucking incredible. I don't know whether or not it's changed significantly, but it may have, so take this with a grain of salt.

Some tips:

-Don't cheer for any one horse or neighborhood unless you want to get beat up. This is an intense race, and the losing jockeys are usually hunted down and hurt by their own supporters.

-Most of the Siena natives I met were tolerant of tourists and happy to answer questions as long as you weren't German. They may hate Americans now, too, so YMMV.

-Get there early. As in, 6 hours if not more. It won't start getting packed until a couple hours beforehand but if you want a chance at being right on the track (which is the only place you'll actually be able to see the race) you'll have to reserve a spot pretty early on.

-Watch out for pickpockets. The Palio is a prime pickpocketing spot so keep your valuables close to you at all times.

It's a really great thing to do and something you'll never forget. If I remember anything else I'll post it up.

Oh, and don't forget to pick up some scarves and flags for the individual neighborhoods; they're quite beautiful and make excellent gifts.
posted by maxreax at 2:30 PM on May 21, 2006

Response by poster: Great! I figured it was a longshot but what do you know, AskMeFi comes through again.

Maxreax, how did you sort out accommodation? I've been looking online and the only cheap stuff I can find is several km outside the city. There is some midrange stuff in the city but their websites are in italian and don't work very well (I'm still working on it). Is it OK to stay outside the city, are the buses OK?
posted by PercussivePaul at 3:26 PM on May 21, 2006

Best answer: PercussivePaul, this is a fabulous idea and the single most incredible experience I have ever had in Europe (including the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, which is a not-so-close second). The Palio is absolutely amazing, so make sure you get there!

Accomodation might be tricky, as this is one of the most famous festivals in Italy, but give a shot - it's a very reliable Italian hotel booking site, and I've used it for every hotel I've stayed in there. Plenty of photos and user reviews for each hotel, as well.

As for experiencing the Palio - get there early (around 1 or 2, if possible) and hold a spot in the center of the Campo. There is an area by one of the 90-degree angled corners (sorry, I have no idea about orientation on the Campo!) that is sometimes called the "death corner" because it's such a sharp turn for the riders. You'll be certain to get an electrifying experience standing ear it - plus, it's on a bit of a rise from the other sides of the Campo, so you'll have a good view of the racetrack at other spots.

Maxreax is totally right about not rooting for one horse, rider, or contrada (neighborhood) - you will see full grown men weep with despair and rage over the end of this race, and you do NOT want to get caught up in that. They will get violent at the end! When I went (2 years ago) we saw one of the jockeys, who had fallen off his horse in the middle of the race, get the crap kicked out of him immediately after the race ended - he had tried to knock another contrada's jockey down, which didn't go unnoticed by the residents of that particular area, and they didn't waste any time taking their revenge. The reactions at the end of the race are the most interesting things to watch (key word being 'watch' not 'take part in'!) - the joy of the winning group went on for days afterwards, when I was there - parades still going on, 2 full days later!

To get the full effect of the race I'd recommend buying a short Palio book from any of the local souvenir shops - there's a lot of symbolism and tradition in this race that will go right over your head otherwise. And don't shy away from picking a contrada to root for and buying their merchandise (the flags and scarves are particularly gorgeous) - just know to hide it immediately after the canons go off, to be on the safe side.

Just be aware, take it all in, and have fun. It's singularly amazing, and I'm terribly jealous you'll be there for it!
posted by AthenaPolias at 5:54 PM on May 21, 2006

I third the recommendation to find a spot inside the track -- what a view! To get into the spirit of the day, I'd also suggest going to the Duomo during the morning (i think...) to watch the parade of all the neighborhood teams.

I went 2 summers ago also and was lucky enough to have friends living in the city. During the weeks leading up to the Palio, each neighborhood has community dinners, and we joined our friends for their's. If you can figure out a way to do it, it's definitely worth it (maybe just ask some local residents -- the Sienese are very friendly!).
posted by chefscotticus at 6:57 AM on May 22, 2006

Take water. You have to stand in the hot sun in the Campo for several hours in advance of the race, and it is hard to get in and out. When we went, my girlfriend and did wear team colours (I think I wore goose, and she wore giraffe) purchased from a street vendor. No-one menaced us; after all you'll be among 50,000 other people all in different colours.
posted by roofus at 2:45 PM on May 22, 2006

I don't know about accomodations--I was staying an hour away with some distant relatives.

And as for the rooting thing, don't worry about it. I was half-joking--really my point is that the neighborhood rivalries are like the Yankees/Red Sox times sixty, and not something to be taken lightly considering there are a dozen of them.

And water is a total must. It's pretty helpful to go with someone so that you can take turns saving the spot while you stretch your legs, but it shouldn't be required.
posted by maxreax at 3:41 PM on May 22, 2006

Re: the picking a contrada thing - the reason it can get nasty is you could unwittingly end up standing in or near a group of people from that neighborhood. You could pretty easily get caught up in their group rejoicing/wailing at the end. As an "obvious American" (i.e. tall, blonde, and definitely not Sienese) I got picked on a bit for wearing a contrada scarf on the Campo - no big deal, but didn't want it to turn into anything more! Just be wary of the high-emotional points, and you'll be fine. It's all part of the experience!
posted by AthenaPolias at 8:30 PM on May 22, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the tips!

I found a place to stay here - looks pretty cool! I'm very excited about this - I think it could be the highlight of my trip.

Perhaps I'll make a FPP about this race after I get back.
posted by PercussivePaul at 6:32 AM on May 23, 2006

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