Fun for Non-Skiers Involving Flying Fruit & Friesians!
Since we had non-skiing Dutch friends staying with us in Monte Rosa, it seemed only fitting to take them to an Orange Festival.
There are many food fight festivals around the world, based on a variety of cultural, historic or religious traditions. Examples involve throwing flour, wine (decanted), custard pies and meringues. In terms of food flinging, oranges are not the only fruit. The famous Spanish festival La Tomatina in Buñol involves tossing tomatoes. The big stand-out difference with the Battle of the Oranges is that, while all are messy to a degree, the foodstuffs mentioned previously all have somewhat soft and forgiving properties on impact.
Then there is the matter of duration. At La Tomatina, the tomato throwing continues for about an hour. The Battle of the Oranges lasts for three days.
The weight of an orange is more than double that of a tomato and it comes packaged in thick, leathery skin. It is nature’s version of a cricket ball – and when thrown, it packs a fruit punch. Estimates vary, but during the festival, perhaps five-hundred tonnes of oranges are thrown – and when we saw the kids stocking up, they were selective. Only the smallest, hardest fruits went into their ammo bags. Those that would inflict the most pain.
While La Tomatina is very well-known and has been described as, ‘dangerous, hardcore and about as much fun as you can have with fruit’, an Ivrea local told us,
“The tomato festival? That’s for boys. The orange festival is for MEN!”
Rather than try to park near a busy festival, we drove down from the ski resort of Gressoney to Pont St Martin and took the train. From the station in Ivrea, we were not sure where to go, so we followed the crowds and a chap with ‘Dave’ emblazoned on the back of his shirt. We lost Dave as we stopped to buy our red hats. These are an essential accessory for festival goers. For €5, sporting a Berretto Frigio – A Phrygian cap, is a precaution which indicates your status as a non-combatant to the Aranceri – the orange throwers. However, even though it is an ancient symbol of freedom and liberty, your Berretto won’t grant immunity from being juiced or caught in crossfire.
Adorned with our Beretti, we quickly rejoined Dave and his mates. They hadn’t got past the first bar.
The origins of Ivrea’s festival date back to the 12th century and the practice of Droit du Seigneur – The Lord’s Right, which was to have first dibs on bedding the bride of his vassals on her wedding night. Violetta, The Miller’s Daughter – Vezzosa Mugnaia was having none of this. The local dignitary, possibly the Marquis of Montferrato, was a tyrant who starved and mistreated his people. In a gesture worthy of Game of Thrones, Violetta earnestly resisted his rapey advances by decapitating him. When she held his severed head above the battlements, she initiated a people’s revolt and unwittingly, the world’s most ferocious fruit-flinging festival.
In the Battle of the Oranges, the tyrant’s henchmen are represented by ruffians, often wearing masks and protective clothing, aboard horse-drawn carts. They make their way through the narrow, cobbled streets and return the orange fire of the nine tribes of revolutionaries, who await them in the squares around the city.
The tribes are associated with various districts within the city and each sport their own different colours and costumes;
- Main Town Square
- Asso di Picche (Ace of Spades)
- Aranceri della Morte (Aranceri of Death)
- Piazza Ottinetti
- Aranceri degli Scacchi (Aranceri of the Chess)
- Scorpioni d’Arduino (Arduino’s Scorpions)
- Piazza del Rondolino
- Pantera Nera (Black Panther)
- Diavoli (Devils)
- Mercenari (Mercenaries)
- Piazza Freguglia
- Aranceri Credendari (The Credendari – honestly, that’s how it translates!)
- Tuchini del Borghetto (Revolutionaries of the Borough) are the only tribe whose territory lies on the far side of the Ponte Vecchio.
Dave sported the Asso di Picche colours and his mates had the Ace of Spades shaved into the hair on the back of their heads. We caught up with Dave periodically as he fortified himself at various bars, then found ourselves behind him in the queue for porchetta – Italy’s wonderful, herbed and spit-roasted pork. A panino porchetta cost €5, while €6 got you a panino plus a classy, plastic tumbler of wine from a box. While it was not the finest wine, the €6 option was a good call, since we discovered that lunch involved queuing twice. First, to purchase a ticket – a biglietto to show that you had paid and get your wine, the second for your panino. This made lunch a lengthy affair, although the Italian ‘Slow Food’ movement is not strictly all about queuing.
Duly refueled, we inspected the ammunition stores in the squares as we passed. Although we wondered whether the huge stacks of wooden orange boxes were armaments for the entire festival, we saw later that there were many equally huge stacks around the town. Each was carefully labelled for a particular tribe and for just one of the three days. There were a lot of oranges!
Why throw oranges – who knows? Oranges don’t grow in the Alps or anywhere near Ivrea; the inedible, orangey munitions are shipped in from Sicily. Speculation suggests that the use of oranges might be rooted in chivalric metaphor, since maidens cast exotic fruit from their balconies to courtiers as tokens; they could represent the tyrant’s testicles – or simply stones or any other projectile you may deign to discharge in the direction of a deplorable despot.
The town of Ivrea is a conundrum. On the banks of the Dora Baltea river, it was founded by the Celts in the 5th Century BC. Its Celtic name Eporedia is thought to be derived from epo meaning horse (from the Greek ‘hippo’) and the reda – cart. The Romans arrived in 100BC, Romanised its name and left behind a nice amphitheatre. There is also a medieval bishop’s palace, a 12th Century cathedral with a Roman sarcophagus in its crypt and a 14th Century castle.
However, in 2018, Ivrea was granted UNESCO World Heritage status not for its millennia of history, but as a 20th Century Industrial City. This was down to the socio-cultural development started by Mr Olivetti, of typewriter fame. Cormac McCarthy wrote around ten novels, including No Country for Old Men and All the Pretty Horses on a pale blue Lettera 32 Olivetti typewriter. Bought in 1963 for $50, it made more than $250,000 at auction in 2009. Playwright Tennessee Williams was another fan of tapping away on an Olivetti keyboard.
To date, our sole experience of visiting Ivrea had been a tour of the non-UNESCO-listed industrial estate. From there, we source Italian data SIM cards from the bounteous agglomeration of mobile phone shops, whose generous Pay As You Go deals grant us almost unlimited access to the internet and Netflix at 1800m. It made a pleasant change to take in the historic city; to stroll along the river, through the ancient, cobbled streets and around the various squares.
As a horse-lover, I stopped frequently to gaze in awe at the magnificent equestrian parades. There seemed to be many majestic, black Friesian horses from the Netherlands and I did spot one Haflinger; ‘The Golden Horse of the Alps’. I mentioned Ivrea’s horsey connections earlier; another of Ivrea’s festivals is considered ‘one of the most important horse fairs in Italy’. It takes place on the feast of St Savino.
While out skiing in Monte Rosa, we have witnessed Italians side-stepping back up a mountain in order to ski the sunny side of a hill. It came as no surprise to learn that the feast of St Savino was moved from the icy, snowy 24th January to the 7th July simply to take advantage of the weather.
St Savino’s saintly remains arrived in Ivrea 600 years after his death. They were brought by a relative of Arduino of Ivrea, King of Italy from 1002 to 1015, who fled back to Ivrea from the plague in his duchy. St Savino accompanied him to offer protection from the disease. Despite having no Ivrean connections – and being dead for more than half a millennium – St Savino got to work immediately. He healed a lame man, cleared the city of the plague and claimed his place as patron saint and protector of Ivrea.
At the barrier, we were relieved of a €10 entrance fee and our water bottles. (It was Sunday – bizarrely, there is no charge on the Monday and Tuesday.) After petting a lot of horses and scoping out the best place to observe the citrussy combat, we positioned ourselves carefully behind the netting which protected the porticoes of Piazza Ottinetti, home of Scacchi (Team Chess) and the Scorpioni d’Arduino (Arduino’s Scorpions).
The action was preceded by plenty of processing and flag waving, curiously accompanied by renditions of The Marseillaise – the French national anthem – and Napoleonic battle marches played on flutes. This is a throwback to the nineteenth century French occupation of Italy and a convenient amalgamation of diverse celebrations into a single Carnevale.
The powerful rapping of the drums shook my body and stirred my soul. Then, all of a sudden, a cart drawn by prancing, plumed horses clattered into the square. At 2pm, the orange-throwing began.
I once attended a Rugby International at Twickenham and have walked the road to Wembley (the old stadium). The festival atmosphere in Ivrea was just like that. It was raw and tribal. No quarter is given by Aranceri. There are rules, but as with Rugby Union, who knows what they are? There is a winner at the end of the three days, judged on – I’ve no idea. The finer points were lost on me as oranges rained through the air, splattered against bodies and carts (the horses are strictly off limits) and filled our nostrils with their crisp, citrussy scent.
Although we had sought refuge behind the protective nets, the momentum of a 150g flying fruit, fired in anger, meant that anyone too close to the netting still received the full force of the blow. Stray produce found its way through the many holes, while pulp and freshly-squeezed orange juice rained down on us. Savvy festival-goers had wrapped their cameras in cling film or plastic bags. I just tried to turn my lens away from the worst of the syrupy salvos.
After what seemed like hours and several visits to the square from each of the various aggressors in their carts, we decided to leave the battlefield. Although we were separate from the frenetic action and aggression in the melee, even we felt battle-wearied. As we squelched up the narrow streets, skating on a slime of pulped oranges, it was easy to imagine the slippery aftermath of the blood-bath that would have constituted a medieval skirmish.
A curious, earthy aroma hung in the air. A combination of sweating horses and their poo, combined with a zingy tang of citrus. In the main square, a stray orange hit me hard on the back of the arm. It smarted and I knew there would be a bruise. We passed dazed and confused-looking combatants, battered and bloodied, who had become separated from their tribes. For hours, barrages of oranges had hit them. As in any campaign, retreat was not straightforward. To peel off successfully, (Sorry!) strategy was required.
In the confines of the street, we were cornered as I Seguaci di Re Arduino – The Followers of King Arduino battled their way past. We sought refuge in what I think was someone’s hallway, although our presence was not unexpected. The resident had the foresight to prepare by taping cardboard to the floor and had lined the walls with plastic sheeting. They were missing a trick. As far as the roads go, the citric acid in the orange juice leaves the cobbles with a fine polish. It might have worked wonders on their floor!
We didn’t have the heart or stomach to return and free our water bottles, held hostage by ‘Elf and Safety in Ivrea. Instead, we queued the statutory twice – for a ticket then a restorative coffee – before following herds of beaten tourists to the train station for our return journey to Pont St Martin.
There, we were held up by Pont’s own Carnival Parade. Road closures coaxed us into the pursuit of several dead-ends. From the various policeman posted at each roundabout, we pieced together the story of how to find a passable route to the one-and-only road that led back home to Gressoney.
Roundabout Number One – “Gressoney?” we asked. “Problem,” he replied.
Roundabout Number Two – “Gressoney?” we asked. “Via Perloz,” came the enigmatic answer.
Roundabout Number Three – “Gressoney?” we asked. “The road is closed for two hours…”
The Carnival at Pont was somewhat more subdued that the war-zone that we had left in Ivrea, but we were all carnivaled out. So, despite Pont’s doggie connections, we declined to stop and join in. So while we’re stuck in traffic, let me tell you the legend behind Pont’s Carnival;
St Martin arrived in Pont on a pilgrimage along the Franciscan Way to find the only bridge across the river Lys destroyed. He made a pact with the Devil, who promised to rebuild the bridge in a single night, in exchange for the soul of the first living being to cross it. Old Nick duly delivered on his super-quick construction contract, but discovered that while avoiding liquidated damages for late delivery, he had been lax in tying up the finer details regarding payment. The following day, St Martin sent a dog over the bridge and thus defeated Lucifer.
An effigy of Satan is burned beneath the bridge on Shrove Tuesday to celebrate triumph over the forces of evil by contract law. Of all people, Beelzebub should know, ‘the devil is in the detail.’
The moral of the story is – be specific when framing your T&Cs, because you can’t even trust a saint.
We giggled as we passed a garage and saw a man fill two lemonade bottles with petrol.
“We had our water bottles confiscated in Ivrea, but petrol bombs are clearly fine in Pont!”
As we wound at less-than-walking-pace behind the carnival procession, we eventually saw the man empty the petrol into a car. It was parked Italian-style at a rakish angle, partially blocking the road. We forgave him, since he had clearly run out of fuel. The other cars parked similarly along the narrow road could surely not all use the same excuse.
We found the tiny lane to Perloz and dodged oncoming traffic between badly-parked vehicles as we climbed the vertiginous hairpins behind an Ape (pronounced Appy), one of the three-wheeled agricultural vehicles so popular in Italy. Their name comes from the sound of their engines, which make a humming noise like an ape – a bee. (Vespa motor scooters are named after wasps for the same reason.)
From our high vantage, we could see the miserable queue on the SR44. It consisted of several miles of coaches, motorhomes and cars filled with weekend skiers trying to return to Milan or Turin. We assumed that they had been caught out by the fact that the authorities had not seen fit to put up signs to warn of the delay during such a peak time, while the official carnival website remained resolutely silent on the matter of road closures. The route through Perloz was way too small to accommodate such large vehicles and thankfully, even though it was Italy, no-one had tried.
As we crossed back on to the SR44 near Lilianes, we mused about how we could possibly describe the events of the day to someone who had not experienced it. It had been a very strange mix of primal violence, tribalism and complete absurdity. We felt as though we’d been Tangoed.
And the orangey aftermath on the streets of Ivrea brought to mind a song.
“Is this the real life? Is this just Fanta-sea?
And finishing on another bad orange pun. That’s just taking the pith.
Unfortunately, St Savino doesn’t seem able to repel modern plagues like Coronavirus, so sadly, the following two days of the 2020 festival were cancelled as a precaution.
With all that Vitamin C flying around, I would have thought that a cold virus wouldn’t stand a chance!
If you find The Battle of the Oranges A-peeling…
When & Where is the Battle of the Oranges?
The battle is in Ivrea, Piedmont, Italy. The nearest airport is Turin, from where there is a good and inexpensive train service. Ivrea is approximately ninety minutes drive from Monte Rosa. You can also take a bus or drive to Pont St Martin, which is a short train ride from Ivrea.
The battle takes place on the three afternoons preceding Shrove Tuesday, although there is a full program of Carnival-related events from January onward. Click here for a link to the Carnival Website
What to Wear
Old clothes that you don’t mind getting covered in orange – and a red hat if you don’t want to be pelted with oranges! We did take a thick bin bag, but that was overkill. Our walking boots provided pith protection and traction on the sea of oranges. Don’t take water bottles or anything else that might be used as a projectile. These will be confiscated when your bag is searched. Cover your camera or use a wipe-clean mobile phone.
Is it dog friendly?
NO! Dogs are permitted, but in my opinion, the dense crowds, teams of horses with their thrashing hooves, noise and general mayhem are not suitable for dogs. One little fur baby who was near me in the Piazza Ottinetti was TERRIFIED, but at least he and I had a puppy cuddle!
Thanks to my lovely friends Monique Huiszoon and Casper Theune for letting me to use some of their photos of the day. After experiencing The Battle of the Oranges, they are working on setting up an even more macho white cabbage throwing festival in their home town in the Netherlands.
To see what else we get up to on piste and off, check out my new book Pups on Piste – A Ski Season in Italy.
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