Outside of Tuscany aficionados or Italy insiders, few people have heard of the Palio di Siena. I first read about it in my trusty Frommers family guidebook, and instantly thought it could be a fabulous, insane but authentic Sienese experience. So, what the heck is it?
In a nutshell, the Palio di Siena is a horse race, held twice per year in the summer. The bareback riders dash around the main square in Siena, the Piazza del Campo. The contestants are decked out in colors and patterns representing one of the city’s seventeen districts. Though I didn’t know it at the time, the Palio is a really big deal in Siena.
Though I paid attention when the guidebook mentioned that taking small children is problematic in that crowds top 50,000 and getting to a toilet is nearly impossible.
But, a side note encouraged me in this crazy plan: “To experience the event for free, aim for the trial races, also held in the Campo. It’s still busy but it’s bearable, at least for the morning sessions.” Perfect. We aimed to attend the 9am trial race on the 13th of August.
To get a feel for the city, I thought we might just want to visit Siena the day before the race and check things out. You know, just in case…
As we approached the Campo, the first thing we noticed was that every entryway that led into the piazza from the surrounding streets was closed. What the?!After what seemed like at least a half an hour of searching, we stumbled upon the only open entrance which just happened to be right next to our first destination of the day – the iconic Torre del Mangia. We noticed that the square was already set up for the race: bleachers erected, dirt track laid, metal barricades entrenched.
Lines for the tower can be incredibly long since only 25 people are allowed up at one time. Lucky for us, we were definitely within the first group of 25. Unlucky for us, we found ourselves standing around with the early birds for forty five minutes past the opening time of 10am.
When the boys went from restless to obnoxious, we started asking around. The word on the street was that the horses had already practiced that morning, and the contenders had used the base of the tower as a stable. Since tourists would hardly be impressed by the unsightly gifts left by the horses, someone had to sanitize the place.. and on Italian time.
No official explanation or apology, no “poop clearance in progress” sign on the door, no estimated time of completion. When we had wasted an hour of our day in Siena, we finally gave up.
Next stop – a snack and then swings & a slide at the Orto Botanico. Only it wasn’t open. Chiuso per ferie. Closed for the holidays.
Determined to keep our chins up, we quickly popped in to the neighboring Museo di Storia Naturale to have a free look at a gigantic whale skeleton and make a pit stop. Though seeing the big bones like that was totally rad, you have to admit that it’s rather pathetic when the best thing about your morning is a dead whale.
After a sandwich and a bit of gelato lifted our spirits, we took a deep breath and trudged on to face the crowds in the Piazza del Duomo. The facade of the church is incredible. I desperately wanted to see the inside, but I had to make a choice.
My boys weren’t going to put up with hours of art, and previous research told me that the Santa Maria della Scala was the more kid-friendly attraction.. Church or old-hospital-turned-museum? The guidebook insisted on the latter, but my gut wanted to go with the former.
Research trumped momentary desire, and we shelled out 12 euros to enter the Santa Maria della Scala. As promised in the promotional literature, there’s loads to see in this museum – art, science, religion, archeology, history – and it’s quiet. The cycle of frescoes depicting medieval medical care is not to be missed, though my boys would argue the best part of the museum was the graffiti wall in the children’s area.
But just between you and me, I would’ve rather seen the inside of the Duomo. Zebra stripes are intertwined with delicate pink marble to decorate a most stunning facade second only to the Duomo in Firenze. Sigh. If its this exquisite from the outside, I can only imagine the interior.
At this point, Big Foot decided to give up the fight and fall asleep (the poor kid still has not learned how to nap on the go) which meant we had to keep walking or risk waking him up. Our route took us by the best gelateria in Siena, the Kopa Kabana. I’m still dreaming about the Coca Cola gelato!
But even the awesome ice cream could not revive our spirits. The heat bordered on unbearable, the narrow streets were clogged with fellow tourists, our feet ached, our boys whined, and we couldn’t shake our feelings of discouragement. We had spent nearly an entire day in the city, and yet we had virtually no authentic Sienese experiences to show for it.
To make matters worse, my heart sank when I realized that the next day, the first day of the trial races, would only intensify our frustrations. We’d have to endure swarming crowds and scorching sun while waiting hours for a 90-second thrill.
Sounds a bit like Disney, doesn’t it?
But try as we may, we couldn’t catch a break. At the very end of the day, we forced our tired legs down the stairs of the Fortezza in the direction of our car. T-Rex stumbled, tripped, and fell face down on the stone steps. The poor guy landed – smack – on his face. Blood everywhere. Three loose teeth. Massive freak out.
Thank God, he’s fine. The teeth weren’t broken, and they’ve been hanging on for over six weeks now.
Oh, Siena, I desperately wanted to like you. But the stars were stacked against you, my friend, and things just did. not. work. out. I hope we’ll meet again another time, in another season, and things will be different.
If you’re just joining us now for Our Tuscan Family Adventure: Two Weeks of History, Culture, Food, and Fun in Italy series, you might think we had a really awful time in Tuscany. No, no, no! Click on the link to read some of our other (awesome) adventures.