This post is inspired by a recent question on TripAdvisor about what to expect from a morning trial during the “days of the Palio”. (Although similar in their approch, I will write about evening trials separately. For now, please see TOM’S TIPS within my Palio Schedule page.) The morning trials “officially” begin at 9:00 in both July and August, though like other Palio-related events, the process unfolds gradually. This is almost as interesting as seeing the horses and jockeys themselves for the actual trial, because you can experience the entire process. Here is some additional information and tips regarding what to expect and when to arrive. (And more photos at bottom of post!)
During the four “days of the Palio,” there are six scheduled trials (prove, in Italian), three in the mornings, three in the evenings for each Palio cycle. Morning trials are on June 30, July 1, July 2, and Aug 14, 15, and 16. I highly recommend any of the three morning trials prior to the race on July 2 or Aug 16 for those who wish to learn about the Palio process. Also, if you are traveling with a family, including either children or seniors, seeing a morning trial is a great way to experience the Palio without the additional stresses of larger crowds and intensity.
The morning trials are less busy and more “child friendly,” (and more stress-free for adults) because there will be plenty of room in the center of the Campo for running around, sitting, or changing positions to see different parts of the track before the trial starts. During the event, some find it even more enjoyable to stand away from the barriers closer to the center so that you can see the whole event and track around you (such as near Fonte Gaia, the rectangular fountain at the top of the Campo). Some room near the barriers might be available for a morning trial, but the horses zoom by and you might not experience the rest of it. This is all a personal preference, however. If you’re looking forward to up-close views (and photos) of the horses before and during the trial, get there early (say, 8:15-8:30-ish) and stake out a place at your favorite barrier location. Busiest spots along the barrier are the areas near the starting line (near main Campo entrance) and near Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall) where the horses enter/exit for the trials and Palio.
To give yourself plenty of time to orient to the Campo scene, I suggest arriving in the Campo between 8:30 and 8:45, before the line of police begin to “clean” (clear) the track of humans. They do this progressively around the track starting at 9:00. After this, they close off the center so that people can no longer enter or exit. I also suggest sunscreen, hats, and snacks, especially for children as well as adults. There is a whole process to the trials (similar to the Palio), with the police slowly “clearing” the track of human bystanders, then picking up trash on the track, then city officials and captains making their way to the judges’ stand.
Once inside the Campo, expect to be there for probably 1.5 hours (more or less) without the ability to move in or out, and no restrooms in the center. (If you experience an emergency, such as getting sick or immediate restroom needs, head for the bell tower (Torre del Mangia). There are medical staff stationed arcross the track and they can get you out of there if necessary, though it may involve carrying you over the barriers – I have seen this happen.)
If you get there around or after 9:00 when they are “clearing” the track, the last area to enter the Campo is the short access road from Banchi di Sotto on the east side of the Campo near the bell tower (Torre del Mangia). If you arrive early enough and want to try bleacher seats, there are various bleachers designated for visitors, including one set near this specific entrance near the Tower, and another set (I’m more familiar with this one) to the right of Palazzo Pubblico (City Hall) as you face it, near the gelateria in the corner of the Campo known as the Casato. They might charge 5 euro or something for seats, if they are not filled up yet. If there is no more room, you will need to go into the center to watch the trial.
After the preliminary activities, the small cannon will boom (this is usually a surprise! Listen for the subtle drum role first, as a warning), and the ten horses and jockeys representing the ten competing contrade (neighborhoods) will emerge from Palazzo Pubblico at the bottom of the Campo. During the trials the jockeys wear their colorful contrada outfits, so you can enjoy trying to determine which contrade they represent. Regardless, they then move up the track (to the right as facing City Hall) and begin their standard circling routine behind the mossa (starting line). The starter (mossiere) will then call each horse and jockey up to the rope in turn. (The lineup order is predetermined from earlier lotteries/drawings). The last horse to line up in position 10 is the rincorsa (run-in horse), which waits behind the others. The lineup process can take a while, sometimes with one or more false starts (this can add some time to how long you remain in the Campo). Eventually when all is set well enough, the rincorsa gallops toward the starting line and the mossiere drops the rope (canape). They launch ahead and begin the trial.
The horses will complete three laps, just like the Palio race itself. The main purpose for the trial, of course, is to test the horses on various skills, so they may appear to be racing at the beginning, but jockeys will usually slow down and work on various skills with their horses. They do not want to risk any injuries during the trials, because the horse cannot be replaced. The contrada would be disqualified from the final race if that happened. Thus, it does not matter which horse “wins”. (In America it’s similar to NFL pre-season games). The local media still amusingly report which contrada “won” the trial, but there is little if any meaning to this. Nobody is trying to win or cross the finish line first. After the trial is completed, the horses are collected by their grooms, and the Campo barriers are opened for the crowds to disperse.
So, if you arrive with plenty of time and are prepared, it’s a fantastic, amazing experience – even without seeing the final race. Essentially, you have just experienced the process of the Palio and how it all works. Just beware that the process takes some time, well before the horses emerge from Palazzo Pubblico. I find all of this fascinating to watch in itself, so it is recommended to come armed with patience and a “sense of adventure”. It is what it is (smile). It is helpful to keep in mind that the Palio is first and foremost an authentic community event that dates back centuries, and is therefore oriented to the Senese people. While visitors are welcome to respectfully participate, the Palio is not designed as a festival for tourists. However you decide to watch and experience the fun, enjoy being enveloped within the rituals that tie directly back to the days of the Siena Republic!