Do you know Siena? No, not a pretty girl you went to school with, the Italian city of Siena. No? Well it's not entirely surprising as it's one of Italy's beautiful but lesser known locations. But it has not always been so. Siena has been an important city for thousands of years, said to be founded by Senius, the son of one of the brothers who founded Rome (Romulus and Remus).
It has had several names during its occupation by France, Romans and the Lombards but usually in some form meaning ‘Old city’ (Seneo in Latin). Now the city is located firmly in the district of Tuscany and is world famous for the Palio De Siena, a horse race that occurs twice a year in the main square and was featured in the James Bond Film ‘Quantum of Solace’.
The reason for our visit was just that, for the Palio De Siena. Essentially it is all about the factions of Siena coming together to prove who is the best. Each district is represented by a rider, a horse, and a flag. Each team parades through town waving flags, cheering whilst being dressed in history correct medieval costumes. Some men are dressed as knights, whilst others are dressed Pages, Squires or standard bearers.
Each of the small shops lining the beautiful cobblestones streets sells flags and scarves of the team's for patrons to adorn themselves with. There is fever in the air, drinking and celebrating is the order of the day.
What about the race itself? Well, I believe it is less about the race and more about the feeling the atmosphere of the event. The race takes place in the centre of the city in the paved centre. The ground is covered with dirt and sand to make a circular track. When you see it the first thing you realise is how small it is for 10 horses to ride around in and take part in a race.
In the centre of the track is the ‘Pen’ where spectators can watch the race for free. Get there early for a good position but the heat is strong and there are no bathrooms. If you want a more comfortable experience you can splash out for seat in the outer ring but these will set you back a pretty penny.
Generally there are two races one in the morning around 8am and one in the evening at 730pm. The races occur on 2 July and 16 August.
If you are not able to get to Siena for the Palio, do not despair, there is much to see and do. Siena is one of Italy's finest media cities, it is clean and well organised and can be reached from Florence in 1.5 hours by bus for €7 Euros. The bus station is located close to Santa Maria Novella station.
One warning, you should always validate your ticket. Once you get on the bus there are two ticket machines, one at the front and one at the back of the bottom level. If you do not validate your ticket, regardless of the fact you purchase a ticket, you will be fined €63. No excuses. It happened to us and that stuff really ruins your day.
Siena is a wonderful place to wander through, the streets are beautiful and lined with great places to shop and eat. It is perfect to sit at a reasonably priced restaurant, there are plenty of those, and enjoy a spritz or prosecco, and watch the world pass by.