Join in the Palio celebrations in Siena, Tuscany

If you’re after exciting Italian holidays, there is no better time to visit than the month of August, with festivals and events running throughout the month. August 15th marks the start of the national holiday of the Ferragosto, commonly known as Assumption Day. Many places in Italy, even the sleepy villages, come alive with music, food, parades and fireworks as Italians celebrate this special day.

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Celebrations can last for several days, often falling on the days before or after Assumption Day, with one of the biggest events in the Italian calendar is happening today, August 16th. The Palio di Siena is one of the biggest sporting and historical events to take place in the country and continues the old tradition of holiday horse races to celebrate Ferragosto.


The Palio of Siena

In the medieval city of Siena, you can enjoy the popular and historical tradition of the Palio di Siena. The Palio is a horse race that commences on the 16th August each year and is made up of ten riders who represent different districts in Siena. The event ceremony begins with a big procession through the city centre, with costumed participants and fantastic performances by flag twirlers that can be viewed from many parts of town. The parade comes to an end at the historical city centre, Piazza del Campo, where the main event takes place.

Be sure to pick a horse to back and dress up in their coloured scarf as a sign of your support; scarves are available in many shops around the event. Next, make your way over to the stands where thousands of locals eagerly await the race. Feel the suspense as the line-up is announced by lottery draw and the horses and riders gather at the starting point. The riders circle the track three times at high speeds, so expect an electric atmosphere because the race is highly competitive, and the winner is awarded the prestigious victory flag.

Whilst the race only takes 90 seconds, the festivities last for the days before and after the main event. Sing-a-longs, pounding drums and parades fill the streets with glorious noise, mimicking the Medieval rituals of battle; whilst celebrations for the winner, after the Palio, last well into the night.


History of Palio di Siena

So, how did the Palio di Siena become such a vital part of Italian culture? The story begins some 800 years ago in the hill town of Siena where the first recorded Palio was conducted in the year 1238. The race itself was an adaption of the public games that were held in the central piazza during the Middle Ages.

The Palio di Siena, in the form we know today, first took place in 1656. It marked the ongoing rivalry between the districts (known in Italy as the Contrade of Siena), with each and every local displaying a strong sense of pride for their own district because for the Sienese, it is not about winning a prize, the Palio di Siena is for glory!

It wasn’t until 1701 that the games were split into two allocated days, the first was on 2nd July, in honour of Madonna of Provenzano, and the other on the 16th August, in honour of the Assumption of Mary.

Italians, proud to stay true to their roots, have continued this tradition well into the 21st-century; the sense of pride the Sienese feel toward their district still live on to this very day, and the electric feeling of the competitive spirit makes for a thrilling holiday experience!

So, when planning your holiday to Italy, be sure to research the festivals and events taking place throughout the year. Historical traditions are a great way to experience authentic Italy and have some stories to tell when you return home.