The Siena Palio: More Religion than Race

I have something that I affectionately refer to as my Italian Bucket List.

Hiking the Stromboli Volcano? Check.

Battle of the Oranges? That was on it, but is now complete.

Siena’s Palio? I have yet to fulfill my dream of experiencing the tradition first hand. The race is controversial because it is also dangerous.

Siena Palio Cafe

Siena’s main piazza, elliptical and slanted, is cleared of bar tables and festival booths.

Siena Palio Main Square

For the Palio, the square is a race track.

Siena Palio Main square

But the Palio is so much more than a race – it is practically a religion.

Siena Palio Selva-14

Siena is a city divided.

Siena Italy City View

The picturesque Italian town is all about the contrade.

A contrada is a district.  It is these districts, these sub-city divisions, that race.

Siena Palio Horses

Each of the 17 contrade has a horse. Before the Palio, the horses sleep behind guarded gates in the neighborhood that they represent.

When I visited Siena, we explored La Selva.

Siena Palio Selva symbol

The symbol of La Selva is a rhinoceros.

La Selva – the jungle – has been a documented contrada since 1506, carrying forth the banner of the neighborhood.

Siena Palio Contrada baptism

And the neighborhood is what it is all about when it comes to the Palio.

You aren’t just born into a contrada – you are baptized into one.

When a child is born, the parents must agree on the contrada that the baby will support for the rest of his or her life.

The tiny child then goes through a symbolic baptism at the contrada’s font, in front of the church.

An announcement is published in the newspaper, listing the child as belonging to that contrada.

And a contrada is for life.

Siena Palio Selva Church

The religious overtones don’t stop there.

Each contrada has its own church, displaying its victory banners.

For La Selva, the holy place is the church of Saint Sebastian in Vallepiatta.

Siena Palio Church

The aisles of the church are wide, and the pews are moveable.

Ahead of the race, the horse literally walks into the church to be blessed.

Siena Palio Museum

Below the church, La Selva has a contrada museum.

Siena Palio winning banner

The Palio happens twice a year (once on 2 July and once again on 16 August), and the winning contrada is awarded a custom-designed banner to commorate the occasion.

In the contrada museums, you can find banners dating back to the 1700, 1600 and even 1500s.

A church, a baptism, a place of worship.

The palio really is more religion than race.

Church of Saint Sebastian in Vallepiatta
Piazzetta della Selva 5
Siena, Tuscany

I visited Siena and toured La Selva as a guest of My Tours Tuscany


8 thoughts on “The Siena Palio: More Religion than Race

  1. Emily Leaphart says:

    Great post! I’m traveling to Siena in a few days, and will be there on the 16th. I keep pinching myself that I’ll be there on a Palio day, although I don’t expect to manage a view of the race. Bracing myself for utter calamity and sleepless nights!

  2. TonyM says:

    We went last July 2015 for my partner’s 50th birthday, which happened to be on July 2nd. We planned a year in advance to get the hotel, tickets/seats in the bleachers, dinner at one of the contrada’s, a guided tour of one contrada’s church and museum. Aside from it being extremely hot and the seats very uncomfortable it was truly a bucket list item. We wandered through the hordes of tourist to look for the different contrada fountains, la tartaruga was my favorite. All the build up and parades the few days before the actual race are really great to watch.

  3. George Santosuosso says:

    Leaving on Aug 11th, our room has a balcony overlooking Piazza, and we have a seat at the Contrada dinner, can’t wait

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.