Sagra del Tordo--The Festival of the Thrush
Along time ago, in the days of castles and fortresses and dreadful fuedalism, skill with the bow and arrow was essential not only to war but to survival for it was with them that hunters brought food to the table--and to their masters.
And so--the Sagra del Tordo was born--the celebration of the successful end of the hunting season. Today in Montalcino that celebration continues albeit with noticeable distortions of the severe, cruel class distinctions that existed back then.
The sagra was reborn in 1957 as an emotional contest between the four quartieri (neighborhoods) of Montalcino-- Borghetto, Pianello, Ruga and Travaglio. Archers train all year to be worthy of being chosen to represent their quartiere. Little boys dream of the day they can pull the strings of the arrow in front of the huge crowd that gathers to watch--when they can bring honor to their quartiere. Women cook for days preparing food for the many banquets that will be held. The town stops all else--nothing else matters--the universe is the contest.
This year we were a part of this extravaganza. Arriving Friday afternoon, it wasn't long before we were swept up in the excitement and the electricity of the anticipation. The young people could be heard chanting--proclaiming the superiority of their part of the town. Visitors were arriving--although nothing like the bus loads that came in on Sunday. Shops were full, selling olive wood cutting boards (to me), high-end clothes (not to me), tacky souvenirs, ceramics, jewelry (to my friend Colleen), shoes, whatever the tourist wanted--and, of course, bottles and bottles of their very famous wine--Brunello (to everyone).
We stayed in the heart of the town at the beautiful Palazzina Cesira, a noble's house built in 1275--this made it even easier to make the step back in time. Walking out the door of the Palazzina, we were immediately thrust into the life of the town and with a little imagination, we could see it 700 years ago--well, really, with a lot of imagination.
The owners of the Palazzina are quite special people who have created a lovely home filled with treasures from around the world. They have restored the palazzo as close to its orginal configuration as possible--including a very old, authentic floor in the room we had. Roberto is a professional photograph whose work has been in Conde Nast and many major publications.
Every building in the village flew the flag of its quartiere. And since there are no clear demarcation borders at the points of convergence, many streets had one flag on one side and a competing quartiere on the other. After the contest, all flags were removed but those belonging to the winning quartiere--Borghetto, which happened to be our part of town.
Friday night we went to dinner with friends from Slow Travel, my favorite travel website. Colleen and I have communicated many times via cyberspace and so were thrilled to finally "really" meet. She and Jim and Ken and I and Casey were old friends immediately and, beginning with dinner Friday night, spent a great portion of the rest of the weekend together. It was quite difficult to say goodbye when that time came.
Saturday was preparation day for all the participants in Sunday's festivities. There was a parade with each quartiere dressed in full medieval regalia followed by a practice archery contest in the soccer field below the fortessa. The practice was so exciting that it was hard to believe that the real thing on Sunday would be more so--but, it was.
On Saturday night each quartiere holds a dinner to toast its two archers, to socialize and celebrate--singing and chanting of bravery and invincibility and superiority over the other three quarteri. These are private celebrations which for the most part are closed to visitors. But---Roberto, our host at the Palazzino, was able to score tickets for us for the Borghetto dinner. So we went and absorbed the fun and watched and ate and cheered. Of course, we understood little of what was actually said but the the universal language of excitement is easily transmitted and understood. It was a very fun experience and added immeasureably to the total Sagra experience.
And all of this led into Sunday, the day that would determine the winning quartiere of 2006 and whose flag would be left to decorate the streets and buildings of Montalcino.
The day began with street dancing and a general sense of celebration. Crowds had grown--bus after bus of tourists from Siena poured in--mostly Italians coming to witness an Italian moment. We wound our way to Piazza Cavour where the animals and people were gathering for the grand parade through the medieval streets and into the fortessa at the other end of town where ceremonies would take place and proclamations read.
We found a perfect spot to watch the parade go by and then scurried through the back streets to arrive at the fortessa ahead of the parade. There we watched the formal activities and traditional folk dances. Warriors with cross bows stood high on the ramparts, watching for invaders from the Montalcinesi ancient enemy, Firenze. While the Royal Court, surveying all their subjects below, sat majestically on the royal chairs.
It was a very warm day and I am certain that the heavy velvet clothes became quite uncomfortable before this part of the festivities was over.
In the afternoon before the awaited contest, we joined Colleen and Jim for lunch under the Borghetto tent and then, realizing that we needed tickets for the archery competition, Jim and Ken went to buy them.
By the time Colleen, Casey and I made it to the field, Ken and Jim were in and had secured some of the best seats in the house--right on top of the wall where no one could block us and we could watch all the joy and pathos going on below where the people of the quartieri shout, cry, moan and hug as their archers make target or don't. Some can't bear to watch the suspense and so cover their eyes or stand with their backs to the field. It is almost impossible to convey the depth of emotion that is invested in this event. It is anything but a game or simple Sunday afternoon diversion--honor and prestige are at stake.
The competition involves making the targets--which are large cutouts of wild boar--from increasingly distant ranges. Each quartieri has 2 archers and each archer uses 5 arrows for each distance. After the first set of archers completes their pulls, the judges determine how many of the arrows hit their targets and then the second archers step up and shoot 5 arrows. At the end of each round, there is a possible total of 10 points.
In the first round, Pianello, Ruga and Travaglio hit all 10 but Borghetto missed one--at the easiest range. The members of the other three quartieri were ecstatic as that is who won the practice competition on Saturday, thus, had become the common enemy. So--the tension mounted until by the 5th and final round, the crowds at the fence were silent, afraid to breath, watching with closed eyes. And then, when the 8th arrow was shot, Panello, Ruga and Travaglio knew it was over and that Borghetto reigned supreme--in the ten rounds of the weekend, it had a score of 49--it had missed the target only once.
Borghetto began climbing the fences to get onto the field to hug and manhandle their archers--shouting and chanting their victory. Pianello, Ruga and Travaglio silently left the stadium to return to the streets and begin the sad and lonely task of removing all their flags from public display. So, by the time we walked back, only the Borghetto flag proudly flew and reigned over ancient Montalcino. Until next year, they are the champs and must be acknowledged as such.
The Borghetto church bell rang through the night, chants echoed through the old, narrow streets with their high buildings, joy was complete for this year.
That night we had our final dinner with Colleen and Jim and it was a sad parting. Although we had just truly met, we were old friends not knowing when we would meet again. Hugs and kisses on the street and we went through our respective doors. They were getting up at 5:30 to drive to Rome and catch their plane home. We were off in the morning to another adventure--Orvieto and the Etruscan cities of Pitigliano, Sorano and Sovana. The magical weekend of the Sagra del Tordo was over except for our memories.
Enjoy a short video giving a little bit of the flavor of victory as Borghetto marched back into town.
More reading: KZ in Toscana An eight year old's version of the sagra.
God sometimes gives us unexpected gifts. Our gift has been a grandson who enlivens our lives and makes retirement very different than the one we anticipated. He is a special joy. And that's "Casey." In 2006 we fulfilled our dream of living in Italy for a year. It was every bit as wonderful as anticipated. This blog begins in 2005 as we prepared for that experience. Since then we have explored many places together. That's the "Travel." And finally, I am a person of opinions--spiritually, politically, on just about anything and that's the "Other Stuff." Welcome to my blog.