Elena Nappa & Rick Steves at the Siena Palio

Exploring the Siena Palio with Rick Steves


Elena & Rick Steves at Borgo Argenina

Rick Steves picked the newly restored Borgo Argenina, restored and run by Elena Nappa, as his point of reference when he first started exploring the landscapes and traditions, like that of the Siena Palio, many years ago. The accommodations of Borgo Argenina have evolved to include private villas and cooking lessons, the surrounding vineyards, and medieval towns are prettier than ever and the Palio, that started hundreds of years ago, still goes on every year – twice!

Looking for an authentic insider look of the culture, the wines, and the people, Rick Steves found Borgo Argenina in the Siena countryside. In his travels, he proceeded to explore traditional events of the area highlighting the color, the folklore, the celebrations, and the fun. His newest adventure exalts some of the more exciting festivals of the area – those which don’t include art, architecture, illustrious writings and geniuses at work. Events like that of Palio in Siena which express the heart and soul of the people in Tuscany.

Rick Steves Tuscany Siena Italy - things to do in Siena Italy
Rick Steves Tuscany Siena Italy

No museums or galleries…just Europe at play

Rick Steves

The History of il Palio

Held twice a year, the Palio di Siena is the horse race featured in Rick Steves European Festivals guide book.  Annually, on July 2nd and August 16, there are ten horses and ten riders, who set out to carry on a tradition that has been recorded since the early 1600s. Dressed in the colors of their “contrada” (equivalent to a city ward or neighborhood) and decorated with their mascot, they are prepared to fight to the end to bring home the coveted “Drappellone” prize.

Once divided into over 50 sections, the city of Siena now officially counts only 17 “contrade”; each represented by an animal or object – like a goose, snail, dragon, giraffe or forest. However, not everyone gets to race all the time – making it even more exciting.  They rely on a strict set of rules where 7 of the competing “contrade” are pre-determined and the remaining three are selected by a lottery.

The Palio is won by the horse who represents his contrada, and not by the jockey.

The real protagonist is the horse

To make things as unbiased as possible, the horses are drawn from a private stock comprised of the pick of the stables by private owners and jockeys.  At this point, the main representatives of the participating contrade will choose ten horses of approximately equal quality just three days before the race. A lottery then determines which horse will run for each contrada. The horses are then exercised in trail races days before the race, paraded into church for a final blessing and then decorated in the appropriate colors before being ridden bareback around the famous square in the city center of Siena: il Campo.

Enjoy the Excitement of Palio

Rick Steves filmed his adventure in Siena, aptly capturing the enthusiasm and excitement of the crowds composed of zealous fans and curious tourists. This race is felt by all on a visceral level, where one and all are asked to choose a favorite – either by birthplace within the city or by choice – and cheer them onto the finish line.  It has long been conceded that it is a dangerous track, and many precautions are taken to foresee the safety of both riders and the horses. A curiosity, the riders are allowed to use their whips but many times it has nothing to do with spurring on their mount rather for disturbing other horses and riders.

The starting line is designated as an area between two ropes. In a predetermined order nine of the ten horses enter into the space between the ropes – literally jockeying for the best position.  The tenth horse enters at their own discretion and triggers the start of the race. Since this rider is looking for just the right opportunity to start the race, this can take minutes…or sometimes hours!! The race consists of three laps around Piazza il Campo and it takes approximately 90 seconds.  Pure adrenaline.

Drago brings home the victory

The winner is the first horse to cross the finish line, and in the Palio of Siena, a horse can win without its rider !! The loser in the race is considered to be the contrada whose horse came second, not last.

Coming to il Palio di Siena

Elena at Borgo Argenina fell in love with Siena and all of its Tuscan traditions, especially Palio, years before she met up with Rick Steves. When she saw what remained of Borgo Argenina, she was able to envision a quiet refuge in the middle of the Siena hills where one could truly enjoy the “real” Siena hills and culture. Which is exactly why Rick Steves encourages guests to look her up when coming to Tuscany, especially when they want to take in the festivals like that of Siena Palio.  Elena has poured her heart into the reconstruction of the hamlet Borgo Argenina, and the results have brought much satisfaction! So much so, that she can boast: Borgo Argenina has been featured in Rick Steves‘s guide books Italy, Florence and Tuscany 2019 for 17th editions in a row – and what a wonderful testimony to quality and service over the years.

The Siena Palio will fill your vacation with a day of exhilarating memories.  And, Elena at Borgo Argenina with her selection of villas, rooms, and suites will give you a relaxing and colorful reprieve from the tourist-filled meccas in Tuscany.

Elena Nappa & Rick Steves at Borgo Argenina Tuscany Accommodations near Siena
Elena Nappa at Borgo Argenina & Rick Steves