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Food and the Palio in Siena, Italy

Food and the Palio in Siena, Italy



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The Palio is a really big deal in Siena. It boils down to a horse race between the city’s contrade

(neighborhoods), which has been run twice yearly since 1701. But the palpable passion and undying dedication to the pomp and circumstance that goes into each race signifies that to Italians (and lovers of all-things-Italian), it is so much more. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/kiki99)

It would be impossible to over-stress the importance of region here — no one can support more than one contrada and horses are born into their neighborhood, with no option of being transferred. Each neighborhood announces their chosen jockey late the night before each race, adding to the speculation and anticipation of the day.

Once you’ve chosen a neighborhood to support (I chose based on the prettiest team colors, but I imagine others are more strategic), choose whether to follow the procession to the Piazza del Campo (Siena’s largest square and makeshift race track) or people watch and snack on street foods while

waiting in the square. Once the very grand and old fashioned procession has come to a close and the horses have lined up calmly next to each other, the gun goes off and the race begins! And then, in the blink of an eye… it ends. At the end of about two minutes, one contrada is the glowing recipient of unparalleled glory, pride, and bragging rights until next year. (Photo courtesy of Flickr/kloppster)

But perhaps the most fun tradition of the Palio, in my opinion, is the food. Almost immediately after the race has run, most restaurants in the Piazza del Campo set tables and chairs out onto the race track. Full disclosure: the restaurants situated on the Piazza del Campo are worth passing over for more under-the-radar Siena gems under normal circumstances. But to tuck into a juicy, mouth-watering Bistecca alla Fiorentina by a freshly raced track and with a view of singing, drumming, and gloating revelers is an experience for all senses.

Having said that, we advise you to skip Al Mangia and Il Bandierino, in favor of just-to-the-side Ristorante Guidoriccio or right-on-the-track Spadaforte for your post-race meal.

That food and the Palio go hand and hand is nothing new — when the riding jockey is announced on the eve of the race, it is at an enormous dinner held for the entire contrada. But now, one of the Palio’s

most loved and storied jockeys, Andrea Degortes (aka Aceto) recently opened a new restaurant called Millevini.

Dedicated to serving foods made from all locally sourced ingredients, Millevini is situated within the Enoteca Italiana in Siena. Putting to good use the enoteca’s wine cellar (with over 1600 different wines, who wouldn’t?), Millevini showcases the meats, cheeses, and fish native to that region of Tuscany. It may be in Siena, but it is considered safe land — any jockey from any neighborhood can dine there. (Photo courtesy of Millevini)


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


Cosima Spender on the thrills of Siena’s Palio

Siena is an incredible jewel of a city and still has a medieval spirit. I was born in the countryside nearby and think of it as home.

It isn’t a city that has soaked up many outside influences. It’s a very Tuscan place, one with fortified walls and big city gates, le porte. In one part of the city walls, you can still see what was once a fireplace and a little window and you can imagine the man who used to sit there and take the tax (dazio) from the country folk for entering the city.

Documentary film-maker Cosima Spender

The world’s first bank, the Monte dei Paschi, was established in Siena in 1472 and the cheque was invented there, too. In fact, the Palio horse race in a way helps commemorate those glory days, when the city and the Sienese people were dominant.

The Palio is only a 90-second horse race but the plotting and scheming last all year. There are two races, one in July and one in August, and 10 of the 17 districts (contrade) are allocated a horse in a draw that takes place in front of the whole city in the main square, Piazza del Campo. Throughout the year, the districts are constantly making deals with each other, saying things like: “If we get a really good horse but you get a bad one, we’ll pay you to ‘take care’ of our rival at the start of the race.” It’s so political – there are all these intrigues and games going on, with the districts fundraising and campaigning for money throughout the year to fuel these schemes. And at the end of it, all they win is a banner!

Siena prepares for the Palio Guardian

Success for a district or a jockey at the Palio requires being clever. It’s a celebration of cunning – and a desperate attempt by humans to control fate and life. It’s like when you play poker and you bluff it’s not cheating, you’re just being a good poker player.

For four days in July and August when the Palio takes place Siena becomes a state within itself the Sienese don’t look beyond their own walls. And they admit they’re crazy. I have friends who tell me that around Palio time they skip the first few pages of newspapers just to get to the Palio news.

The Palio gets under way. Photograph: Alamy

The jockeys used to be decadent playboy types but now they are professional and train all the time. They also have to be bright enough to make deals and wise enough to get around the difficult Piazza del Campo track.

It’s free to stand in the middle of the square for the Palio. You need to get there early and the view isn’t that good, but the atmosphere is fantastic and you get a real sense of the collective passion. Just before the lineup for the Palio is called out, the whole square falls silent: 50,000 people and you could hear a pin drop.

Saint Catherine of Siena fasted so much she had hallucinations, and ultimately found herself in an ecstatic state with God. I find her a fascinating character. One walk I love starts at the Basilica of San Domenico and follows the alleys past her house and then towards the back of the Duomo. You pass a stunning view, on your right, of San Domenico with green fields of the countryside below. Then it’s on up to the Duomo and baptistry (Battistero di San Giovanni), on a route that’s higgledy-piggledy, very up and down, but a beautiful way to experience the city.

The Duomo di Siena. Photograph: Julian Elliott/Robert Harding

It’s rather touristy but you must visit the Palazzo Pubblico (town hall) to see the incredible series of frescoes by Lorenzetti. They’re known as the Allegory of Good and Bad Government and were meant to encourage the governors of the city to behave in a just way. It really shows you what Siena was like in the 14th century.

If you want to eat something truly Sienese – and delicious – it has to be pici al ragù a fat, handmade pasta, almost like noodles, served with meaty sauce. My kids go crazy for it. I love it too, but, you know, you have to watch how much pasta you eat.

A detail from one of Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government frescoes. Photograph: Alamy

Da Divo on Via Franciosa is an amazing, tiny restaurant – and it has an Etruscan tomb at the back. It is not the most well known of Siena’s restaurants but it has delicious food and a great atmosphere.


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