Short Tourist Guide to attend The Palio

What to do and what not do to live and enjoy the four days of Palio di Siena

Although it is something to do at least once in one’s life, attend the Palio of Siena is not like attending a normal folkloristic event. Undoubtedly the Palio is a celebration, but during the four days which enliven it, it is good to know that the town and the contradaioli are lit up by a strong fervour and susceptibility against every outer interference or intrusion. This may turn out to be invasive or even bothersome and it could even degenerate in unpleasant situations.
This is not because people from Siena are uncontrollable mad people, but it is because during those days that full-blooded passion which is in dormancy in wintertime is awakened by the unmistakable sound of the silver clarions (the typical wind instrument without valves which plays the Marcia del Palio). They announce the picking up of the Contradas at the end of May. The attitude of people from Siena may sound somehow skittish and it may initially appear introverted and unsocial, but it actually hides a big heart. You just have to conquer it.

Therefore, to attend the Palio one should try to be involved in it by observing it with no hurry and superficiality, as it may do a tourist catapulted in the middle of a crowded square. So, you should try to be hosted by a Sienese friend willing to take you around during these four days which are very peculiar and palpably full of adrenaline. In this way, you can get the right “instructions for use” to safely move within the Square, and the information on what to do and what absolutely not to do during the highest tension moments, like the trials or the starts which may last several minutes. You could get the chance to closely observe the Palio, live it and understand that deep meaning which lies behind the race that, differently from what people see on television, is only the last step of a long preparation which begins long before and engage all people belonging to the Contrada.

By the way, if you do not know anybody from Siena and you are about to live the Palio, there are some things that you should know to serenely attend the Palio.

THE HORSE – In Siena the horse is like a son/daughter. The horse is cuddled and protected as the most precious thing. If you happen to be in Siena during those days, you will immediately realize how this is true and what monsters the ignorance generates. Therefore try to be “aware hosts” and try to understand to what extent this peculiar feeling lies inborn in every person in Siena. Be respectful of this innate attitude and avoid every superficial and worthless comment against the Palio and this tradition. Otherwise, if you are not persuaded about all this, nobody will force you to attend the Palio.

• DINNERS IN THE CONTRADA – If you want to be involved in the celebration, you may try to take part to a dinner in Contrada, even at the dinner that takes place the night before the Palio is run. You just have to book in advance. Obviously you pay for it. When you feel that the atmosphere is calm, you may ask information to the people of the Contrada that you have chosen, they will explain you how it works.

• THE SQUARE – The access to the Square is free, but once the historic promenade has started, you can get into the Square only from Via Dupré. When you are in the Square, you DO NOT have to stop in the closeness of the entry which will be soon closed. You must flow towards the centre in order to avoid useless gathering of people. The Square is concave, so you can see the start of the race from everywhere inside the Square.

• TOILETS AND OBJECT IN THE SQUARE – There are no toilets inside the Square and once you are in you cannot get out until the end of the race, so you better go to the toilet before you get in. It is forbidden to take chairs, stools, but also strollers and pushchairs. You better not take very young children with you. In case of sudden illness, you will be promptly assisted and taken out by the Misericordia (the mobile First Aid station).

• HANGING OBJECTS AND CHILDREN ON ONE’S SHOULDER – Once in the Square, do not lift your children on your shoulders and avoid to keep your tablet or camera too high because they may block the view to the people behind you. Besides the accidents, you will risk to be hit with something on your head. If you want to be comfortable, choose the bleacher seats.

• THE BLEACHER SEATS – Choosing to watch the Palio in the Square, close to the contradaioli, surely means living it in a more touching and captivating way. If you choose a more comfortable solution and you want a better view, the bleacher seats are definitely the better choice, even if not so cheap. For any further information, ask the closest shop or bar.

• FOOTWEAR – Above all the day of the Palio, try to avoid to walk with flip flops or open shoes, because it is very likely that in the excitement somebody may accidentally step on your feet. Besides the fact that the flip flops show a careless tourist, if you do not want to go barefoot back home, just wear comfortable sports shoes !

• USE OF THE SPEED LIGHT – If you want to take pictures and you have pricey cameras, you must NEVER use the speed light in front of the horses. You may frighten the horse and get the contradaioli really angry.

• PEOPLE OF THE CONTRADAS – After the trials, wait until all the people of the different Contradas are poured out and do not try to mix up with them, above all in the closeness of the horse.

• “OPINION EXCHANGES” – In case of frictions among the contradaioli, avoid to film the possible vivid “opinion exchanges” which may occur. This is part of the Palio and it belongs exclusively to the contradaioli, not to you and not even to youtube.

• THE START (“LA MOSSA”) – In case of a very long start, avoid offending or insulting comments towards the jockey and the Contrada, because those contradaioli who may be close to you could harshly answer you back.

• AFTER THE RACE – After the Palio do not get into the track, just wait that the winning Contrada people crowd the tuff and recover the horse. These are extremely exciting moments when, if you do not know how to behave, it is very easy to get injured by stumbling or falling down because of the confusion.
• THE REJOICING (“IL GIUBILO”) – Do not go too close to people during the rejoicing and leave the Provenzano Church or the Dome free to let the winning Contrada express its joy. Wait the exultant people outside the Church, both because there is not enough room and because it would be like sneaking in somebody else wedding. Let the tradition keeping on being tradition. If you want to party, there is the whole night. That is the time to go and visit the winning Contrada, you will be a well-accepted host and you will be offered some wine.

• THE PACIFIER – The pacifier (yes, exactly the one that small children sucks) that you will see hanging by the neck of the contradaioli who won the Palio is not a sign of madness or regression to childhood, but it symbolizes and honours the new “cencio” (the painting) that the Contrada has just won. Do not ridicule this custom, it is just another way of keeping up the Sienese soul.