Siena, home of the Palio
Siena, the home of the Palio, has held a special place in our hearts since Mark lived there in the fall of 2014. It’s a magical walled city in Tuscany, about an hour from Florence by car, train or bus. If you have never visited Italy, Siena makes a great day trip from Florence for a visit to its beautiful Duomo and for people-watching in the Campo. If you are looking for an opportunity to immerse yourself more deeply in Italy in a medieval town, we would recommend spending a week or more and really getting to know Siena.
We originally spent a weekend in Siena in December 2006, as an add-on to a business trip between Milan and Rome. While we enjoyed our visit, we remember getting bored after a couple of days of walking around and bumping into some of the same tourists over and over. When Mark started looking for a place to spend his sabbatical, Siena was not on the list, but when he saw an apartment with an enormous patio overlooking the city, he was sold, and booked it on the spot.
When you spend two months in a foreign city, you cease being a tourist. You need to buy groceries, do laundry, and keep yourself busy after you have seen all the standard attractions. Mark got to experience Siena that way and now it’s become another home.
Siena is off the main train line in Italy, but it is still relatively easy to reach via Florence or Pisa. There are also great bus connections from local providers and the European budget provider FlixBus.
For travelers arriving to Siena from Florence, we recommend the Tiemme Rapido bus that leaves from the Santa Maria Novella train station (SMN). If you arrive by plane, you can take the 20-minute Volainbus from the Florence airport to the station and connect from there.
This time we arrived via train from Lucca. It took us about two and a half hours to reach Siena and from there we took a taxi to our apartment in the town center. Siena’s main town center prohibits cars without a special permit, and there are some areas even a local car can’t easily reach. On the day we arrived our driver left us at a nearby port (gate) to the town and we walked a short distance to our place.
Head straight for the Gelato!
After we settled in and dropped our bags, we headed to the grocery store for supplies for our week in Siena, stopping by our favorite gelato place, La Vecchia Latteria, on the way. Owner Fabio recognized us right away and welcomed us warmly. When in Siena, we usually visit Fabio once or twice a day. This is some of the best gelato you will ever taste.
Speaking of gelato, when you are traveling in Italy it is important to know the rules for finding the best gelato amongst the hundreds of places. First, see if they serve banana and check the color. If it’s yellow, walk away. Bananas aren’t yellow in real life, they’re gray. If the banana is gray – go for it! If you don’t see banana, look for pistachio. This is one is a bit more difficult – good pistachio will be kind of a pale/brownish green. If it is too bright green, it is probably made from a mix and not real pistachios, so we suggest you move on.
You should also see how they display the gelato. If it is all humped up high in a beautiful display, walk away. Fresh gelato is unstable and needs to be kept cold. Good gelato places will store the gelato inside stainless steel containers and sometimes add a cover to keep it even colder.
If the gelato shop doesn’t meet these criteria – the ice cream may still be good – but it’s not gelato. We recommend persevering and holding out for the real thing.
Walking around Siena
Siena has just over 50,000 people, making it a really comfortable size. The city rises up around the Piazza del Campo in a circle of medieval buildings and narrow streets. There are plenty of hills, but once you figure out the layout of the town, you can avoid the steep climbs by following a more roundabout gradual path. It’s baffling if you are just there for a weekend, but after about a week even the directionally challenged start to find their way easily. By the time we visited we knew our way around the city so we found all our old haunts right away.
In mid-October the weather was refreshingly mild, never too hot with cool evenings, and while the tourists still arrive every day to walk around the town, not that many are staying overnight. During the passeggiata (or evening stroll) you see mostly locals and college students walking around the narrow streets and meeting up for an aperitivo in the Campo.
During this visit we had no real agenda in Siena other than to catch up with friends, eat some of our favorite foods and drink wine on our beautiful patio. We had already seen many of the local sites, the Duomo, the Tower, the Fortezza and the botanical garden on our previous trips. We focused on relaxing, walking around the town and enjoying the atmosphere, stopping for cappuccino (and gelato!) and visiting a few of our favorite restaurants. We cooked and ate at home as much as we could, enjoying fresh pasta and sausage from the local markets, and of course, drank local wines.
While there are plenty of great Tuscan wines to buy in Siena, we ventured out on two different trips to the countryside to visit Montalcino, the home of our favorite wine, Brunello di Montalcino.
The Extraordinary Palio
In October of 2018 Siena held an extraordinary Palio – a special edition of the famous medieval horse race normally held twice a year in July and August. The mayor of the town announced it late in September as a way to celebrate 100 years after the end of World War I, and we were pleasantly surprised to be able to be a part of it.
Siena is divided into seventeen different contradas, or neighborhoods, with a rich history of rivalry dating back centuries. Each contrada has its own identity and events throughout the year.
Even on a regular day in Siena you will often hear drumming from the different contradas practicing. But during our visit, the drumming and singing of different contradas was virtually non-stop. There was so much electricity in town with each neighborhood decked out with lamps, flags and residents wearing their contrada scarves. We were staying in the Onda (Wave) neighborhood and have friends from the Niccio (Shell) and Selva (Forest) contradas, but we chose to stay neutral and just enjoy the fun.
The Palio itself is held in the Campo, on a hard-packed track of dirt installed on the perimeter, with old wooden seats surrounding the track and a big open center space where anyone could watch for free. The seats are held by different families and businesses around the town, and hotels and shops also sell seating in their windows that open up to the Campo. The reserved seats can go for thousands of Euros, so we decided to just take our chances and go to the middle with everyone else.
But first, we had a wonderful view of the pre-Palio parade from our apartment window. Every contrada marched past our place, chanting, drumming and waving their colorful flags. Every group had representatives in traditional medieval dress, from wigs to shoes. It was a great way to start the celebration.
We followed the end of the parade into the main Campo square. The local police controlled the crowds very well and squeezed more than 15,000 people into the main square to get ready to watch the race. After we reached maximum capacity they closed off the entrance and we settled into our standing positions to wait for the start. It was warm and not that comfortable, but for such a crowded event it was a great atmosphere and we felt safe. There were far more Italians than tourists down in the square with us, excited to see the famous race.
The Palio is by no means a professional horse race. It is limited to just ten contradas, the seven that didn’t race in the last one and three more chosen by lottery, and the ten horses are assigned randomly. Each contrada hires a jockey, but we hear that there is notorious cheating on all sides with jockeys having been known to accept multiple payments. The Palio is a serious business and the contradas spend thousands of Euros to try to win.
After the parade circled the Campo, the horses came out and got lined up for the race. The horses don’t always want to cooperate so this took some time and a few different false starts. After about half an hour or so they finally cooperated and the horses were off to run their three laps around the track.
Once we figured out the race was actually on, it was utter pandemonium in the Campo as everyone cheered and struggled to see the action. We were able to see the horses at the far corner each time around, and each time it seemed another rider fell off. By the time the race was over most of the jockeys were on the ground and the winning horse, Remorex from the Tartuca (Tortoise) contrada, crossed the finish line alone. The whole thing took about 90 seconds.
Once the race ended the celebrations began. Our apartment was near the Tartuca contrada and they partied well into the night, drinking wine and beer, singing and marching around the town toting their beautiful winning horse. The winning contradas wear pacifiers, since winning the Palio means they are “reborn.” The chanting and drumming continued well into Sunday. It was an awesome and unforgettable experience.
While you may not get lucky enough to see an Extraordinary Palio on your trip to Siena, we would definitely recommend the charming town for a week or more as a great place to relax and enjoy the atmosphere or as a base to explore Tuscany. Don’t limit yourself to the Campo area as there is much to explore in the town off the beaten path. There are some great local tours, but if you would rather explore on your own it is easy to hire a car for the day and drive yourself around the area. And when you come back, the town has a rich diversity of restaurants and sights to keep you busy.