Thrills and spills, medieval style: Il Palio

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One of Italy's most spectacular and best known festivals, Il Palio is held twice yearly in Siena on 2 July and 16 August, to honour the Virgin Mary. Dating back to the Middle Ages, it features a series of colourful pageants, much eating, drinking and celebrating in the streets; and - most famously - a wild bareback horse race around Piazza del Campo.

Il Palio is one of very few surviving medieval spectacles of its type in Italy, enduring thanks to the sheer tenacity of Sienese traditionalism. Most other displays of medieval folk tradition were in fact brought back to life in the 20th century out of a combination of nostalgia and the urge to earn a few more tourist bucks. Indeed, the Sienese place incredible demands on the national TV network, RAI, for rights to televise their festival.

Ten of Siena’s 17 town districts, or contrade, compete for the coveted palio, a silk banner. Each has its own traditions, symbol and colours, as well as its own church and palio museum. As you wander the streets, you’ll notice the various flags and plaques delineating these quarters, each with a name and symbol relating to an animal. On the downside, competition is so fierce that fist fights sometimes break out between contrade, and Il Palio jockeys often live in fear from rival contrade. Scheming rivals have been known to ambush jockeys and even drug their horses.

On festival days, Piazza del Campo becomes a racetrack, with a ring of packed dirt around its perimeter. From about 5pm, representatives of each contrada parade in historical costume, each bearing their individual banners.

The August edition of the race is run at 7pm (the July race starts at 7.45pm). For little more than one exhilarating minute, the 10 horses and their bareback riders tear three times around Piazza del Campo with a speed and violence that'll make your hair stand on end. There is only one rule: riders mustn’t interfere with the reins of other horses. Even if a horse loses its rider, it is still eligible to win and, since many riders fall each year, it's the horses who are the event's main attraction.

Keen to experience the drama and chaos of Il Palio at close range? It's advisable to book well in advance for a room, and to join the crowds in the centre of Piazza del Campo at least four hours before the start for a good view. Surrounding streets are closed off well before the race begins, except for Via Giovanni Dupré, which stays open right up until the flag drops. If you arrive late you can try your luck reaching the Piazza via this street – but don’t count on it, as everyone else has the same idea. If you prefer a more comfortable seat overlooking the race from one of the buildings lining the piazza, ask in the local cafés and shops. They’re as rare as hen’s teeth but, if you do manage to find one, expect to pay around €220 for the privilege. If you can’t find a good vantage point, don’t despair – not only is the race televised live, it's then repeated throughout the evening on TV.

If you happen to be in town in the few days immediately preceding the race, you may get to see the jockeys and horses trying out in Piazza del Campo – almost as good as the real thing. Between May and October, Cinema Moderno (tel: 0577 28 92 01; Piazza Tolomei; h10am-5pm) runs a mini-epic 20-minute film of Siena and Il Palio that will take your breath away.

Andiamo! There's still time to make tracks to Siena for Il Palio - just make sure you grab our Pick & Mix chapter for Central Tuscany on your way out...