Il Palio di Siena: The Perfect Excuse for a Party

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Florence in August: The tourists move in and the locals flee. Not so in Siena, Florence’s age-old rival an hour’s drive south, where the locals stay put and get their party on.

Equal parts Kentucky Derby, Fiesta de San Fermin, and neighbourhood block party, Il Palio di Siena is a bareback horserace held twice a summer. On 2 July and 16 August, it’s a wall-to-wall party inside Siena’s medieval city-centre as teammates pack in to celebrate the Palio.

For the Palio, the city is divided into 17 contrade (districts), with “noble” names like the Porcupine, the Wave, and the Snail. In the weeks leading up to the race, everyone is trash talking, placing bets, and forming unofficial alliances with competing contrade. Add in a few feasts, parades, and all-night open-air dance parties, and the whole city catches Palio fever.

This is serious business (or at least primetime for serious summer partying) in Siena. The race takes place in the heart of the old city—every year the Piazza del Campo is transformed from medieval plaza to raucous racetrack.

For all the preparation, partying, and pageantry, the race lasts just 90 seconds. But the Palio proves how much can happen in a minute and a half. The racetrack is only wide enough to accommodate 10 horses (the other seven contrade have to wait it out until next year), and without saddles or stirrups, the campo’s tight turns aren’t merciful.

Keep your eye on the San Martino corner. Fortified with mattresses and other padding, it’s a tough turn for the racers. This year six of the 10 jockeys went flying here on the first lap. Luckily for those contrade, horses can win with or without their riders.

After three turns around the track, a winner is crowned and everyone rushes the infield. This August, Valdimontone (Valley of the Ram) won. Of course, no matter who finishes first, our fellow After Hours Athletes from every contrade are the real winners, because the party doesn’t stop until dawn. 

Photos courtesy of Thomas Chatterton Williams.