Siena’s palio in July and August is the most celebrated festival in Italy. But if you wait until September, you can avoid the tourist high season and enjoy the palio in Asti instead. It has more races, more horses, and a dramatic and colourful procession of 1,000 flag-throwers and characters in medieval dress. It’s a more sumptuous and full day for spectators.
They’ve been racing thoroughbreds in Asti’s old town since 1275, years before the smaller palio of Siena was established. Both palios take place in large squares in the medieval town centres, but the piazza in Asti is more challenging, owing to the tight curves of the near-triangular track (the route in Siena is circular).
Jockeys race bareback, with neither saddles nor stirrups, but only in Asti do they ride thoroughbreds, making the race even more nerve-racking. Less sturdy and more difficult to handle, the thoroughbred horses struggle to keep their footing on the cobblestones of the piazza and the jockeys must employ greater skill in a race that is faster.
Siena runs its palio twice every summer, with ten horses participating at a time. At Asti, there’s much more to see (see images from 2012). Each of the 21 neighbourhoods and villages in and around Asti enters a horse dressed in its own colours, and all 21 of them run in four races during a single day, thundering round the tight corners of the track again and again.
The three qualifying rounds lead up to the eagerly anticipated final, in which the top seven compete. The winner’s prize is the coveted palio (victory banner). The loser receives a meagre anchovy as a consolation prize.
There are 5,000 standing places for free. But if you want to watch the race in style, book numbered seats in one of the stalls that are specially erected for the event. These are reasonably priced and are easy to reserve online up to a year in advance. With so much going on at Asti, you’ll be glad of the comfort the stalls afford.
The day is much busier than in Siena, with more racing and more pageantry. And as night falls, the fun really hots up. Join in the exuberant street parties or enjoy the celebrations in one of the local trattorias. After a long day at the races, you’ll be ready to try some of the excellent local Barbera d’Asti, which connoisseurs believe to be one of Italy’s best red wines.