They’ve been racing thoroughbreds in Asti’s old town since 1275 – years before the smaller palio of Siena was established
NEED TO KNOW
LOCATION Asti is one of the major towns in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy
WHEN The palio takes place each year on the third weekend in September
VISITORS PER YEAR
100,000 come on the day for the street party, though only 10,000 can fit into the piazza, so it’s advisable to book ahead
Siena’s palio is the most celebrated festival in Italy and takes place each July and August. But why not wait until September, when the tourist high season is over, and enjoy the palio in Asti? With more races and more horses, it offers a more sumptuous and full day for spectators. It also has a dramatic and colorful procession of over 1,000 flag-throwers and characters in medieval dress.
Both palios take place in large squares in the medieval town centers, 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’s faster.
Siena runs its palio twice every summer, with ten horses participating at a time. At Asti, there’s much more to see – each of the 21 neighborhoods and villages in and around Asti enters a horse dressed in its own colors, 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 meager anchovy as a consolation prize.
Asti offers 5,000 standing places 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.
FORGET SIENA PALIO?
THE BUILD-UP Everyone has heard of Siena’s palio, and Tuscany is a long-established tourist destination. The Italian hill town is a medieval jewel and famous for its fine wines and excellent cuisine. With its central location, Siena is also an ideal starting point for visits to the rest of Tuscany – Pisa and Florence are both just an hour away and many of the nearby villages, such as San Gimignano and Monteriggione, are well worth exploring.
THE LETDOWN Unless you’ve been invited into one of the exclusive homes that overlook the square where the race takes place, there is no seating at the palio. Most spectators have to stand for hours in excruciating heat during the two races, which take place in July and August.
GOING ANYWAY? Prepare for the midday summer heat with sunscreen, a hat, and water.
Make the most of the festive atmosphere after the race by joining in the raucous street parties.
The nearest airport is Turin, about an hour by car or train from Asti.
Where to Eat
Piedmont is foodie paradise. Try some of the local truffles washed down with one of the region’s fine wines. The area is better known for risotto than pasta.
Tacabanda is great for local specialties.
Where to Stay
There are hotels of all categories in Asti, the most famous of which is Hotel Reale in the piazza where the palio takes place. Accommodations are hard to find on the weekend of the palio, so book well ahead.
Budget per Day for Two
Around US$260 if you stay in a double at the Hotel Reale. For those on a budget, try one of the local agriturismos (farm stays).
73°F (23°C) in September.