Il Palio di Siena ~ Siena’s Palio Horserace

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Maybe you’ve heard of Siena, and maybe you haven’t. (If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you have).

Maybe you’ve heard of Il Palio, or maybe not.

I have a hard time gauging how well-known both Siena and the Palio are because they’ve become such a big part of my life. I can hardly imagine someone not having heard of my favourite town in Italy or its most exciting event. I’m a little too close; I can’t see the forest for the trees.

In about a month’s time, on July 2nd, this year’s first Palio will be run in Siena. What is the Palio you ask? Well. In order to understand the Palio, you first need to understand how Siena is organized.

In modern-day Siena (which sounds funny to me since Siena is still so Medieval in my books), the city is split up into 17 contrade (neighbourhoods). Each contrada has its own name, its own symbol, its own flag, its own headquarters, its own government, its own streets, its own church, its own museum, its own social life, etc.


If you live in the old city centre, you live in a contrada, however you don’t necessarily belong to it. To belong to a contrada you’re either born into the one where one of your parents is a member, or later in life you, through connections, work, and fellow-feeling, are asked to become a member. No one is an official member until they are baptized in the contrada fountain.


The Palio is a bareback horse race that has been run since Medieval times in Siena. The race takes place twice a year, on the evenings of July 2nd and August 16th, regardless of the day these dates fall on. It’s a competition between Siena’s contrade  for honour, glory and centuries’ worth of bragging rights. The contrada that wins the race gets no money, just the Palio banner (cencio, drappellone) itself. Jockeys are hired from outside Siena, and the horses are assigned to each contrada through a draw.

Crowds awaiting the "estrazione delle contrade" or the drawing of the contrade that will run the next Palio. The drawn contrada's flags get hung out the windows of the Palazzo Pubblico in front of the waiting crowd.

Crowds awaiting the “estrazione delle contrade” or the drawing of the contrade that will run the next Palio. 

Not all the contrade run in each Palio, however. 10 run each time, and the two Palios are independent of one another. How do they pick who runs? Easy. If your contrada is one of the 10 that run in July 2014, you don’t have the automatic right to run in July 2015; the remaining 7 that didn’t run the year before do. However, because each Palio is run with 10 horses, there are three from the ones who ran in July 2014 that will also be selected to run in July 2015, through a draw that takes place a little more than a month beforehand.

Watering down the track, just days before the Palio.

Watering down the track, just days before the Palio.

A week or so beforehand, the transformation of the Piazza starts. Truckloads of tufa sand are brought in to build a track right there where there are usually tables and chairs belonging to the restaurants in the piazza. Bleachers are set up and the centre of the piazza is enclosed with wooden gates. The horses and jockeys do trial runs.

That’s all to say nothing about what’s going on in the contrade.  They’re strategizing, and eating and singing and praying and chanting. On the day of the Palio, their horse even gets pushed inside the contrada church for a special blessing. If, said horsey happens to do his business while he’s in there, tanto meglio. All the luckier! (I am not kidding.). The contradaioli (contrada members) wear their fazzoletti (scarves) in their contrada colours, and sing their contrada’s hymn.

And while there’s so much activity in the contrade, the rest of Siena practically shuts down. Stores are closed, streets are blocked off, people take the day off work. In the morning, the horses run the provaccia, the last trial run in the piazza. Then they’re blessed and prepared for the Palio.

And now that you’re prepared for the Palio, you’ll have to wait for my next post about my first Palio experience. I promise, it won’t be long coming!

For the Love of Siena…

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Ahhh, Siena. It’s the place I’ve come to think of as my Italian hometown, even though my actual Italian roots come from a little farther south in a town called Sora. It’s the place where I’ve spent the most time in Italy. The place I worked, the place I lived, the place where I really embraced being Italian. It’s the place that inspired the logo for this blog. It’s the place I make sure I set foot in at least once a year. Plus, it’s beautiful, the food is great, and while you’re there you can’t help but feel as if you’ve got one foot in the Middle Ages and the other in the present.


While tourists would argue that Siena doesn’t have a ton to “do”, I counter with the argument that it’s an amazing place to simply “be”, and it truly is. But even I can see that, while I’m crazy about Siena as it is, it has the potential to be so much more, which brings me to the point of this post:

In 2011, Siena entered itself into the competition to be Europe’s Capital of Culture for the year 2019. Back then, a friend of mine had a wonderful idea: to create a cultural association which might help Siena to achieve the Culture Capital goal for 2019 and to organize and promote cultural activities within the city for both residents and visitors. It’s been two years in the making, (chi va piano va sano e lontano/slow and steady wins the race) but a group of residents of Siena (a couple of my friends included) have created such a group and have called it SIENA SIENA.


Yours truly, all the way from Canada, will be the Canadian Ambassador for Siena within the SIENA SIENA association! What does that mean for me? Well, we’re still working out the fine details, but it’ll probably involve some writing, some translating, and hopefully some more time in Siena. What does that mean for you, readers? Probably that I’ll be keeping you more up-to-date with the goings on in my beloved city. The website isn’t up yet, but when it launches you can bet I’ll be the first to let you know the details, and invite you to join our association.

Viva Siena! 


Summer Event: Siena and Stars

Not Just Another "Dolce Vita"Siena, the perfectly preserved medieval city I’ve come to think of as home in Italy, is hosting a series of great events this summer between 10 July and 2 August, called  Siena and Stars. I don’t usually write about events on here, but for this one, I just couldn’t resist.

You can reach the Siena and Stars website by clicking on their logo below but since the webpage is mostly in Italian, I thought I’d do you a favour and let you know what Siena and Stars is all about.

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Taking place in Siena’s Piazza del Duomo against the stunning backdrop of Siena’s gothic cathedral, the organizers of Siena and Stars have put together a line up of not-to-be-missed performances of all kinds. From pop, to jazz, to opera, to ballet, to theatre, Siena and Stars has something for all tastes and price ranges.  Count on 10 – 60 euros per ticket, depending on the event you’re looking to attend. Not bad!

Siena is a wonderful place to visit no matter what’s going on, but for anyone who is venturing to Tuscany this summer, I’d recommend mixing it up with the locals at one of the Siena and Stars events. It’ll be a taste of Siena and Italy, at their best. Plus, you’ll be visiting this place:

Siena Skyline

Siena Skyline

A few event highlights:

July 10 – Marco Mengoni in concert

July 14 – Tango with Miguel Angel Zotto

July 19 – Buena Vista Social Club Orquesta in concert

July 21 – Mario Biondi and Pino Daniele in concert

July 25, August 1 &2 – Siena Jazz Concerts

For more information and a full listing of the events, visit the website at or call +39 0577  280 545. Email enquiries can be directed to, while tickets can be purchased online at or by telephone at + 39 055 21 08 04.

Buon divertimento!  Have fun!