I’m not much into sport.The blokiness of it all; the fat-and-red-necked rough-nuts that dominate the NRL; the suspect off-field life of the AFL; the paralyzing boredom of cricket. But finally, after 40 years, I have found a sport I’d happily watch again and again. It has everything I want as a fan – pageantry, triumphant music, technicolor costumes and spunky men in tight trousers. It’s jousting!
What an amazing day we had in Arezzo, Tuscany. Twice a year, the Giostra del Saracino is held, and we witnessed its 126th edition in the town’s Piazza Grande. I’d heard of Siena’s centuries-old Palio horse race before, and of Venice’s Carnivale, but until this trip, not about Arezzo’s joust. Based on jousting competitions of the Middle Ages, when knights of the Crusades led their troupes to vanquish the Saracens, the town decided to bring it back in 1931. And everyone gets involved.
We thought the whole event MAY be a little on the touristy side, and when we read that all participants, including cameramen, judges and of course the knights wore full medieval costume, we guessed it may be a tad dodgy-brothers Kryall Castle (if you’re a Victorian you’ll know what I mean) do-it-yourself gear.
But then, during lunch, we heard the trumpets and drums heralding the four teams’ arrival in town, and watched them adorned in team colours, with thick woolen outfits, real chain mail and heavy helmets, with pages, bannermen, lords and ladies march through the streets. Girls handed flowers to the proud knights on their steads, and crowds were adorned in their quartiere’s (neighborhood’s) colours with silk bandannas tied around their necks, bags and hair.
Porta Crucifera (green and red); Porta del Foro (yellow and crimson); Porto Santo Spirito (yellow and blue); and Porto Sant’Andrea (our chosen team for the day in green and white), compete for the best score to in the coveted Lancia d’Oro, or Golden Lance. We booked tickets in the stands surrounding the medieval main square. Down below were the hard-core fans, with banners, streamers, flags and flares, chanting and generally going nuts for their teams.
The Giostra started at 5pm; the Piazza Grande electric. Families snacked on popcorn and massive bags of Brigidini di Lamporecchio – small round wafers flavoured with aniseed. Deeeeeelicious!
A team of Sbandieratori, flag wavers, kicked off proceedings to bugles and drums. They were amazing. Those enormous flags were thrown and vaulted metres into the air, and not one was dropped. The entrance of the gonfaloni (heraldic banners), the eight knights of the joust and knights of the lineage representing ancient nobility of Arezzo was spectacular. All participants not only looked the part, they had a sombre, regal air about them. And then the competition began…
Again, we thought it would all be for show, but these guys meant business. The knights have to take turns at riding, full gallop with a lance, towards an enormous swiveling mannequin of Burrato, King of the Indies (the “saracen”), who brandishes a cat-o-nine-tails in one hand (watch it doesn’t spin and hit your back), and a score shield in the other. The crowd draws a breath as the knight races, makes his mark, and then as the judges solemnly take the scorecard and judge each run depending on where it was hit, if the ride was straight, and on his speed and accuracy. They mull over the result, put it on a slip of paper, which is sent to the herald, and the crowd waits in anticipation for the score.
The guy sitting next to me was a mad Sant’Andrea fan (“our” team, thank God), and was screaming “Dio e buono!” (God is good) each time another team had a shonky ride. The teams who lined the knight’s sandy riding strip were so intense. If their knight scored well, they were crying and embracing. If they weren’t happy with the result, they’d storm the judging panel angrily, while the crowd pointed at them chanting “schemi, schemi” (or “idiots, idiots”!). There were moments when we felt the whole thing could turn into a riot. Team-mates leaping at each other, with fists ready; fans throwing sparking flares at knights to give their horses a fright; and the police and fire squad on hand attempting to keep hostility at bay.The whole thing was passionate and hilarious.
And then, after only about 40 minutes it was over. We won! Like a tidal wave of green and white, the Sant’Andrea fans stormed the concourse, the Golden Lance aloft, with cheering, more tears, chanting of their quartiere’s song, and the count-up of their pennant wins “uno, due, tre…trenta-tre”. 33 times victorious!
What an exciting, brilliant colorful day. Green and white forever!