Running of the Bulls, Siena-Style

The city’s ‘wild ride’ is truly one of a kind

By: Andréa R. Vaucher

If you have clients planning a trip to Tuscany during the coming high-priced, high-traveled months of July and August, help them turn a potential minus into a plus by steering them towards Siena, a gem of an ancient walled city.

Nestled in olive tree-covered rolling hills under an azure sky strewn with wondrous white clouds, Siena, Florence’s historic rival, has the architectural complexity and richness of its northern neighbor without any inconveniences associated with a larger city, such as traffic (the center of Siena is closed to vehicles), pollution or noise.

And here, unlike some parts of Italy, summer is the best time to visit. It’s when Sienese life revolves around one of the most dramatic and anachronistic public spectacles in all of Europe the Palio a bareback horse race run at death-defying speeds around the town’s central Campo.

The race, which has been run since the 1300s, happens twice a year July 2 and Aug. 16 and pits the city’s 17 neighborhoods, or contrade, against each other. Until you’ve walked Siena’s cobblestone streets on the days preceding each race, you can’t possibly imagine the passion behind the rivalries and alliances that have formed over the course of seven centuries.

If you are born in Siena, you are born into a contrada. Your neighborhood is the center of your universe, and every year culminates with the running of the Palio. Husbands and wives born into different contrade separate during the weeks leading up to the Palio.

“It’s not so much that my contrada wins, but that my enemy loses,” I was informed by a Sienese aristocrat who rents out his apartment overlooking the Campo for $10,000 during the afternoon of the race.

Each contrada is named after an animal the snail, the porcupine, the elephant and has a breathtakingly colorful banner. During the summer, these banners fly from every window in the city, and one is draped around the neck of every contrada member.

Ten horses run in July, with the remaining seven (plus three others drawn by chance) running in August. The jockeys come from Sardinia and are watched closely the night before the race, they are sequestered in the contrada they are racing for so they can’t make deals, like splitting the approximately $200,000 purse.

In the days leading up to the races, it seems that everyone in the city is in the streets. The exhilaration is palpable, and it’ll be fun for your clients to align themselves with a contrada and get in on the excitement.

Agencies such as In Italy Online, an ASTA member, can arrange for your clients to attend a contrada banquet on the night before the race, where they will dine with the locals at long tables set up in the streets. In Italy Online ( can also arrange for your clients to watch the race from a window in a private apartment overlooking the Campo (about $400-$475 per person).

Other alternatives would be to crowd into the center of the Campo with thousands of other Sienese or watch the race and the pre-race pageantry on television in an air-conditioned cafe.

The race itself is heart stopping, but it’s over in 90 seconds, an anti-climax to weeks of excitement, parades, costumes, colors and fabulous Tuscan cuisine. The winning horse is taken directly to the duomo, with what seems like the entire town following. Suddenly no matter what contrada one belongs to, everyone angles to touch the flanks of the winning beast a guarantee of buona fortuna until the next Palio.


Hotel Castello di Casole
If your clients are planning their Tuscan holiday for summer 2008, tell them they may just have a new option that’s worth the wait. At that time, The Timbers Company, owners of Esperanza in Cabo San Lucas and The Timbers Club in Snowmass, Colo., will open a private luxury retreat on their 4,200-acre estate 20 miles west of Siena. The heart of Castello di Casole will be the five-star Hotel Castello di Casole created from the estate’s Tuscan castle. Sitting atop the highest hill on the property, with panoramic views of the area’s iconic landscape, the 38-room boutique hotel will feature a world-class spa, fine dining and an infinity pool.