Palio in Italy: Umbria's quieter alternatives

Love the spectacle of the Siena Palio but not so keen on the crowds? Try our Umbrian alternative Palio events for a less frenetic experience.

The Palio of Siena is a twice-yearly spectacle of high-speed bareback horse riding around the city’s central Piazza del Campo. Both events attract tens of thousands of visitors, drawn by the colourful pageant that precedes the race, and the highly-charged atmosphere of ritual and rivalry that surrounds it. Securing a good view is a combination of cash and local contacts, and the city is generally packed out around Palio time.

Yet while many associate Il Palio with horse racing, the event (and indeed all Palios) are in fact named after the silk banner (palio) which is awarded to the winners, and similar events are held all over Tuscany and Umbria. The type of contest varies from place to place, but includes archery competitions and boat battles as well as horse races. So if the Siena crowds don’t appeal, here’s our guide to three alternative Palio experiences in Umbria. 

Città della Pieve Palio

This extravagant event is a newcomer in Palio terms, only initiated in the 1960s, but the concept of three competing factions, or terzieri, dates back to medieval times. The 10-day spectacle in August completely dominates the town, and is one of the most colourful in Umbria.

The Palio at Città della Pieve takes place during the second and third weeks of August, with the Lancio della Sfida (Launch of the Challenge) being issued on the 15 August public holiday, Ferragosto. The festivities culminate in a huge parade of residents in historic costumes on the penultimate Sunday in August, followed by an archery competition between the three terzieri. The challenge requires three archers from each of the three terzieri to take three shots at three moving targets, each of which is decorated with the colours of the relevant terzieri. The coveted Palio is then awarded to the winners. Throughout the 10-day event there are parades, plays, concerts and a food festival celebrating Umbrian cuisine.

Getting there: Città della Pieve is on the Umbria-Tuscany border, approximately 2 hours south of Florence and 2 hours north of Rome.

Palio delle Barche, Passignano sul Trasimeno

Lake Trasimeno is the 4th largest in Italy, a refreshing oasis in landlocked Umbria and an important centre for kitesurfing, wakeboarding, sailing and windsurfing. During July, the lake is the venue for the thrilling Palio delle Barche, a three-stage race over land and water to win the coveted Palio banner. The event begins on the lake, when four teams race boats across the water to the town of Passignano sul Trasimeno. Here the boats come out of the water and onto the shoulders of the waiting teams, who then hurtle through the narrow back streets and steep steps of the old town with the boats on their backs. Stage three is back onto the water and a race to the finish: the team that plants its colours on land first wins. The Battle of the Boats commemorates the old power struggle between two noble Perugian families, the Oddi and the Baglioni, and is accompanied by costume parades, medieval games and street theatre. Local restaurants showcase the best regional produce, and the party culminates with a bonfire at the castle and a spectacular firework display over the lake itself.

Getting there: Lake Trasimeno is in the province of Perugia, about 40 minutes from the city, approximately 2 hours south of Florence and 2 hours north of Rome.

Palio della Balestra: Gubbio and Sansepolcro

Like Siena’s, this Palio is a two-part affair, taking place at the end of May and in September. The competition here is between the Balestrieri (crossbow) societies of Gubbio and Sansepolcro in a tradition that dates back to medieval times when skilled crossbowmen had a key role in defending towns and castles. The Balestrieri process through the streets of the town in Renaissance costume, led by drummers and pipers. The main competition sees these hugely heavy weapons being fired at targets almost 40 metres away with extraordinary accuracy until a winner is declared. The day finishes with further torchlit processions. Gubbio hosts the first competition, usually on the last Sunday in May, while the return match is at Sansepolcro on the second Sunday in September.

Getting there: Gubbio is in the province of Perugia, around an hour from the city and 2.5 hours from Florence. Sansepolcro lies about an hour north of Gubbio, about 1.5 hours’ drive from Florence.


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