With very limited travel happening around the world, we are left to reminisce about some of the highlights of our travels over the years, and places that we would one day love to return to. One of our best memories of our around the world trip in 2005 was a visit to the medieval town of Siena and the famous horse race around the main square, the Palio de Siena.

Siena Rooftops

We had passed through Siena while travelling around Tuscany, Italy, and had not realised that the famous horse race was due to happen a week later. We hastily changed plans and returned to the town in time for the race. On our return, it was interesting to have the feeling of knowing where we were going. After checking in at our hostel out of town, we headed back into the town centre to watch the practice race around the piazza. Siena on a normal day is usually a very busy touristy town, but for this event, the streets were even more packed, with tension and excitement rapidly building for the big race the next day.

Rob Palio Trackside

On the day of the race, we headed to the supermarket to purchase our day’s supplies. We had to be prepared, because later we would be stuck in the crowd waiting for the race to start. Rob purchased a scarf in the colours of one of the local regions (Contrada), which we later found out was not even in today’s race! It still seemed unusually quiet in town, until we soon found out where everyone was. After following a few people to one of the local churches, we realised this is where all the locals had congregated. In some bizarre ceremony, with a horse at the alter of the church, there was a blessing being undertaken by the priest in preparation for today’s race.

Siena Horse Blessing

After lunch, we made our way to the centre of the Piazza del Campo, which was slowly beginning to fill, and by 4.30 pm they had locked us in the centre of the track with still a couple of hours before the big race. While we waited with the hundreds of enlivened locals and tourists, we downed a few glasses of red, and watched the stunning medieval parade of flag wavers and drummers.

Palio de Siena

At 7 pm the big event had finally arrived. Across the crowded square we saw the horses taking off, racing around the tight course along the outer edge of the piazza. After a few hairy turns, a puff of smoke marked the end of the race. It was difficult to see much, and we didn’t know which horse won the race, but we jumped and cheered with the crowd regardless, swept up in all the excitement. We were right amongst it all and it was such an amazing experience, one we will remember for a long time.

The Palio in Siena
I think the winning region were standing next to us!

Exploring Siena

The Palio race is not the only thing to see and do in Siena. Overall we spent a few days here, exploring all the nooks and crannies of this relatively small medieval town. We stayed at the cheap youth hostel which is out of town, as it is a fairly busy time of the year, and accommodation should be booked early. From here it was an easy bus ride each day to the old fortress area. The piazza in the centre of town is the main focus point, an enormous fan shape ‘square’, surrounded by imposing Gothic buildings. Around this square is the location of the famous annual Palio bareback horse race, a mad event that attracts huge crowds.

Inside Duomo di Siena

We embarked on our self-guided walking tour of Siena, maps provided by the information centre, beginning from the main square (Piazza del Campo). It was a combination of tours giving us a rigorous schedule for the day. We visited the amazing Duomo de Siena (Siena’s Cathedral) with its elaborately decorated marble floor, a library of illustrated hymn books, and other artworks. We scaled the mighty tower of the town hall, over 500 steps to the top to get a birds-eye view of the piazza below. Other sites on our tour included some impressive Gothic-style buildings, fountains, more piazzas, narrow streets, arch-covered alleys and views out to the surrounding countryside.

Piazza del Campo Siena

A fascinating town to visit at any time, but especially around the time of the Palio, despite all the fellow tourists, it is still very impressive. We will be back, and you should go too.

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