The build up to the oldest horse race in the world in Siena is just as exciting as the main event.
A grandstand seat, an invitation to a horse blessing, a private visit to a contrada museum and the chance to attend a pre-race banquet.
These are all on the menu as I arrive in Siena to immerse myself in the Quattro Giorni del Palio di Siena — the four days running up to and including Siena’s bareback horse race.
It’s been the heartbeat of this Italian city for centuries and sits at the centre of its culture and history.
So many visitors come only for the actual day of the Palio — but they are missing out.
I am here with Hedonistic Hiking, which has the knowledge and contacts to make this week unforgettable. First, I am introduced to Alexandra, who proudly shows us round the Museum of the Contrada of the Chiocciola (snail).
There are 17 districts in Siena, each known as a contrada, and they compete against each other in the Palio twice a year, in July and August. Each has its own traditions, church, museum and fountain.
Each contrada has a name — sometimes it’s a type of creature, sometimes not. There are Pantera (panther), Lupa (she-wolf) and Nicchio (seashell), to name but a few. Alexandra regales us with anecdotes about the history of the contrada Chiocciola while showing us medieval costumes, old photographs and Palio banners.
I join the crowds in the Piazza del Campo to see the horses being allocated to the various contrade.
On our return to the city, we watch the penultimate trial race, then set off to the pre-race dinner of the contrada Valdimontone, where we sit at trestle tables positioned outside in the street.
There are more than 1,500 of us munching away amid the drumming, flag waving and singing of contrada songs. I decide to cheer for Valdimontone, as they have given us such a good time.
The day of the Palio dawns and those of us who are not too delicate from the previous night’s partying venture down to the Piazza del Campo to watch the Bishop of Siena leading Mass in the chapel for the jockeys who are riding that day.
After that, it’s off to the outdoor blessing of the horse of the contrada Oca (goose). Many contrade bless their horses inside, so this is a chance to join in with the locals.