Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ivrea Carnevale

Carnevale in northern Italy is more popularly associated with the hedonism in Venice or the floats in towns such as Viareggio or Verona, but the best of them all isn't the prettiest but definitely the raunchiest. Spain may have their tomato and wine festivals, but Italy has Ivrea's Carnevale, where the town takes a break for a weekend and throws an orange or two in each others' noggins, all in good fun. The tradition is said to date back to the Middle Ages, and the story goes: once there was an evil duke that ruled the city and, exercising his right to lus primae noctis, dragged a virgin into the castle on the first night of her wedding. Unfortunately for the duke, the night ended with him drunk, head cut off, and tossed off his castle's tower down to the cheering crowds below. To commemorate the gruesome event, the town threw rocks at each other every Carnevale. Shocked at what must have been a very bloody sight, the invading Napoleon decreed that only beans could be thrown and not rocks. Around the mid-19th century, the beans turned into oranges. After WWII, the event became organized to what it is today, most likely to capitalize on tourist potential.

The day of the orange fight started tense. After taking a very crowded train from Torino, participants walked the long main street of the town towards the main piazze where the duels took place. Non-participants wore silly read stockings in their heads to make it known that they were not supposed to be targets, but as we found out later on this was an illusion best left at Ivrea's city limits. Slowly, colorful carriages of aranceri (orange throwers) representing "the duke's men" start to roll down the streets, singing fight songs and some visibly drunk. As one gets closer to the squares, one starts to see aranceri camps, filled with food, booze, and ammo (oranges).

After entering the historic center of Ivrea, the streets got more packed and the crowd more squeezed. Buildings were covered in green nets so as to protect windows. The pushing increased and the crowd noticeably started to buzz. Some tourists go behind the green net. It was boring and the spots were snapped up by tourists very early, so there really was no point avoiding the ensuing barage. After an hour of waiting, the neighborhood teams arrived, ready to fight the aranceri. After their procession and their bands started to drum up adrenaline, the carts started rolling in!

First, they came slowly. A few minutes in between each cart to let participants acclimate. Some stay in the sidelines, but one slowly realizes the middle of the piazza, right in the sight line of the throwers, was the safest spot and the most convenient one for throwing oranges back. In the beginning the neighborhood teams are angry at red-hatters for throwing back, but the more beer they consume the less they cared. After a few minutes, it became an absolute melee and the whole place is covered in orange guts and blood from broken noses.

After the first few carts, the carriages start to enter the piazza in an endless stream, sometimes three or four at a time and the targets become completely surrounded. Children, pregnant women, old people: everyone was throwing oranges and getting struck back. Camraderie started to build with the neighborhood teams and even if I didn't wear their uniforms, I couldn't help but associate with one team or another. Once in a while TV cameras controlled by remote control hover the crowd, but they only became targets for the oranges. Unlike La Tomatilla in Valencia, Ivrea's carnevale lasts more than two hours. Imagine: bone cold in the middle of February hurling oranges into exhaustion.

In the end of the festivities, the whole place is covered in oranges (imagine the smell!). Horse shit and oranges mix and crying children protest in disgust as they navigate streets knee-deep in muck. The remaining intoxicated keep the random orange airborne, and some fights start to break out. Obviously, this would be the time to go and enjoy the rest of the festivities.

Afterwards there are dance demonstrations, mock sword fights, and a reenactment of Napoleon's invasion (which the town welcomed). It's all well-staged, except I think no one really had enough energy to enjoy the rest of it. The train back was horrendous: packed to the brim, with no room to move for the hour-long trip. For those lucky enough to enjoy it, Torino offered great nightlife and decent beds to delay the aches and pains surely waiting for the next day.

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