This posting originally formed part of an e-mail to friends in August 2006.
I’ve written earlier about the chestnut festivals which are big round here. But they aren’t the only harvest-type festivals celebrated in this part of Italy. In the early summer we had the strawberry festivals and then a flurry of birra and polenta/pasta events in all the surrounding villages. I like the fact that every town and village has its own festival of local produce climaxed with a short but brilliant fireworks display. From our bedroom balcony we get a private viewing of the displays all down our valley throughout the summer nights. There is a real sense of community and celebration, local pride and socialising. Nothing as engaging as this seems to take place in the UK or at least in Buckingham, where the whole town turns out, supports, eats, drinks and gets merry. And now we’ve come across the Godfather of local shows.
It’s mid-August and our local town, Servigliano, is hosting its annual week-long festival of local food, music and costume displays culminating in the ‘Palio’ – a real jousting competition basd on the traditional formula. Forget Pamplona, rollerball or supporting Millwall. If you like your sport bloody, this is it. But first the history bit. The towns (many places have similar events) divide themselves into their historic mediaeval districts, which in Servigliano’s case means a street leading from each of the 4 gates plus a kind of central district (like mid-town i guess). These districts then display their unique flags, colours and favours from every building. During the course of the week is a series of plays and musical events in the main piazza which has been transformed into an outdoor arena. 3 times during the week are the showcase events. The one we saw was a re-enactment of the town’s ancient history. Many of the locals dress up in mediaeval costume with its leading characters and supporters. Each of the district’s entourage is led by a band of 20 or so drummers and enter the piazza in strict sequence from their respective gates. The first band plays a certain insistent beat on the drums and as it approaches the centre of the square, the second band chimes in with a huge and different sound – the idea is to drown out the preceeding lot. Then the 3rd band strikes up, then the 4th and finally the last band. It’s like an orchestra of Burundi drummers as they all gather in the square. All posing and posturing – very atmospheric. Half the town takes part in the processions – the other half form the audience. Then just as you think it’s all over the first band strike up again and lead the whole lot out of the square and down the road. We the audience follow on behind and off we all go for about half a mile down the road till we reach the local jousting track. Blimey you don’t see many of these back home.
So we bought a programme and could just about figure out that each of the districts is represented by a horseman, uno cavalleresco, who undertakes a series of jousts for the district’s honour. I thought it might be like a mini point-to-point. Oh no. These guys take it in turn to race around this tight figure of 8 circuit on these huge horses at full pelt against the clock. It’s 9pm so the grass is quite dewy. For a horse it must be like ice-skating and they’re nowhere near as good as Robin Cousins at it, let’s face it. The track is about 8-10′ wide so it’s very tight and we the audience are draped over the fences almost within touching distance of the horse and rider. Oh and these guys are also carrying 10′ lances with a sharp point. Their task is to belt round as fast as possible but each time they also have to skewer and capture these rings dangling from a gallows. The rings are no more than 3” across and there are 3 to collect – one per lap of the track. Fastest to collect all 3 wins.
The first guys sets off at a right old lick. There were already shouts of caution from the marshalls dressed like the original Blackadder, as he started to take the big first bend. But this guy kept up this crazy pace as he tried to hang on through the bend. But you could see the poor horse’s hooves slip out from under itself and the guys gets thrown as the horse just collapses just feet from the watching crowd around the Servigliano equivalent of Paddock Hill corner. He just manages to throw away his lance without stabbing anyone. Lots of medical attention for horse and rider. The ambulance arrives and he gets carted off to hospital. The horse was shaken but not apparently stirred and is led away. Phew, bit of a wild start. The second guy takes it slightly easier and does the 3 rings first time with each in a really fast time. The 3rd guy fell off his horse right in front of us and got kicked in the face for his troubles. He looked like Alan Minter the night Hagler got him. Mind you the horse got speared by the lance so it was only fair I guess. We or rather I was starting to get a bit queasy but the 4th guy did ok, collecting 2 rings without injury so we hung on. The 5th guy got thrown off when the horse also slipped and appeared to break a leg. I saw a bunch of guys dragging it away on a sheet to the far side of the course. Hmmm.
We called it a night although there were a whole series of races still to come. There were actually 2 more jousts later the same week but we missed them which was a shame as I was developing a crazed blood lust. It was pretty hard core entertainment and you kind of had to view it through the fingers of your hand. But the crowd seemed to love it and I have to admit it was bloody thrilling. So think about your hols with us next year around 11-20 August if you thought The Gangs of New York was good fun. If you’re in the RSPCA er… better make it September.
Can anybody think of a sport with a higher quotient of thrills, racing action and gore?