The Palio di Siena, a horse race steeped in tradition that dates back several centuries to the late Renaissance era, is as much an experience as it is a spectacle. Seeing the spectacle is one thing, but experiencing the many cultural and historic elements that combine to make it special is quite another. I was lucky enough to do both when I finally checked this event off my bucket list with the help of the people at Palio Tours. My experience of the Palio di Siena took me into the soul of the charming Italian city of Siena and into the beauty of the surrounding Tuscan countryside before leaving me in awe at the excitement and pageantry of the spectacle of the Palio di Siena itself.
Through the premium package Palio Tours offers, I was able to stay in the magnificent Grand Hotel Continental in Siena, a very special property that exudes the elegance and artistry of the Renaissance era in which it was built as an aristocratic home. From the architecture to the fine artworks and original frescoes that grace the walls and ceilings of this grand property to the antiques and rich textiles that make every unique suite seem like the setting for a painting, the Grand Hotel Continental envelopes the traveler in the world of the 17th century nobility.
This connection to the city’s past is an important part of experiencing the Palio itself and throughout my stay in Siena, the folks at Palio Tours provided many opportunities to immerse myself in the history of the city and its people. This cultural immersion was further enhanced by the opportunity to join an exclusive cooking class with a Tuscan chef. For a further journey into the food culture of the region, I took advantage of another of Palio Tours’ offerings, a visit to the Felsina vineyard and winery where we were treated to a talk covering current wine making techniques as well as the winery’s heritage, followed by a meal and wine tasting.
Within the city of Siena itself, residents are closely associated with their particular Contrada, or district. The Palio, in which horses representing the various Contradas race through the city’s picturesque Piazza del Campo, brings the passion of the locals for their district and their city to the forefront, beginning with the celebratory diners that take place in each Contrada on the night before the Palio. I was able to attend the dinner of the Contrada della Pantera and by pledging allegiance to this Contrada during a night of feasting and celebration, I was further able to immerse myself in the excitement of the Palio.
By the time I had participated in the blessing of the horse of my Contrada, during which the horse was actually led into the church for the ceremony and taken my place at the window in an apartment high above the Piazza del Campo that had been reserved by Palio Tours, I felt like more than a spectator. I was a participant in the experience of the Palio. The race itself was a thrilling 75 seconds of racing through the center of the ancient town but the memory of this experience will last far longer.