In Ivrea, our mission was to get pet food, find a vet to administer rabies boosters to The Fab Four, and score an Italian data SIM card.
This was because our proposed destinations of Macedonia and Montenegro don’t recognise the validity of a 3-year rabies vaccine, and because one of the many benefits of Brexit was the re-introduction of crippling data roaming charges. We found a pet shop with a lorry-sized car park to accommodate The Beast, but luckily, our other targets were within walking distance of our sosta (aire) next to the Dora Baltea river.
The last time I was in Ivrea was for its carnevale. In Italy, carnevale refers to a series of celebrations which start around Epiphany on the 6th January, and last until Shrove Tuesday; the day before the start of the Lenten fast.
Each town interprets carnevale differently. Venice’s masked carnival is world famous, while in Sardinia, they don ghost masks and hold a jousting tournament called La Sartigilia. In nearby Pont St. Martin, they wear togas and burn an effigy of the devil beneath a 2,000-year-old Roman bridge. And in Verona they have gnocchi Friday, venerdì gnoccolaro, presided over by Papà del Gnoco – The Gnocchi Father. I think that would be a great title for a mobster film, although Verona’s Patriarch of the Potato Pasta is more free potato dumplings for all than protectionism and extortion.
Carnevale is all about freedom from convention and re-living history and tradition. The Italians have a saying, ‘A carnevale ogni scherzo vale,’ which means ‘At carnevale, anything goes. (Ogni scherzo translates literally as ‘any joke’ or trick.) The citizens of Ivrea took this to heart, so in this small corner of Piedmont, the finale of their carnevale manifiests itself as the most red-blooded fruit-flinging festival in the world.
From Sunday until martedì grasso (literally ‘Fat Tuesday’, commonly called Mardi Gras), Ivrea hosts La Battaglia delle Arance – The Battle of the Oranges. It is exactly what you’d imagine, only much longer and considerably more violent. For three full afternoons, locals pelt each other with several hundred tonnes of nature’s version of a cricket ball.
Since the Battaglia takes place in winter and the crates of oranges are stored outside, they sometimes freeze, although in a nod to the modern ‘Elf and Safety consciousness, deliberately freezing your ammo is frowned upon.
Even so, injuries are common!
The whole thing started in the Middle Ages when Violetta, a Miller’s daughter, used direct action to back up her assertion that “No” means “No”. She beheaded her Lord, who was intent on claiming Droit du Seigneur. In the Good Old Days, this was the quaint tradition of raping the bride before the groom got his hands on her. When Violetta held up the tyrant’s severed head, she started a people’s revolt, which is now inexplicably re-enacted once a year through the medium of citrus crossfire.
Two types of arancieri (orange throwers) participate in the battle on opposing sides. Those on foot represent the good townspeople, based in nine squares around Ivrea. Their hooded ‘oppressors’ move from square to square to attack the good citizens from fifty horse-drawn carts. Onlookers wear a red sock-shaped hat to indicate their neutrality from the combat.
This gnome-like berretto frigio (Phrygian cap) is an ancient symbol of liberty, worn by freed slaves in Rome. Later, it became an icon of the French Revolution and spread to territories around the world. As a result, if you look closely, you will find a Phrygian cap in the coats of arms of several Latin American countries, a couple of state flags in North America, and in the seals of the US Army and Senate!
After the overheating brakes, fluctuating oil pressure, and advice that The Beast was in danger of annihilation from drone strikes, it was a relief to amble quietly across the river into Ivrea’s medieval centre. The main bridge overlooks the more ancient Ponte Vecchio and Ivrea’s kayaking club. With a fourteenth-century turreted castle and snow-capped Alpine peaks as a backdrop, it must be the most scenic white water obstacle course in Christendom!
Near the Ponte Vecchio, we visited the vet. They were closed, so we strolled along the riverbank in warm sunshine and enjoyed the pink blossom that lined the riverside promenade
Tasked with dog-sitting duties, Mark had not accompanied me on my escapade with friends to The Battle of the Oranges. No doubt the fascinating commentary I delivered as we walked around Ivrea made him feel like he’d been there.
“This is the main square, Piazza Ottinetti, where we watched the battle. All those arcades were covered with nets to stop spectators being hit by oranges, but still we got sprayed with juice and pulp. You could spot those who’d been before; they had covered their cameras with plastic bags or cling film!”
“This is Piazza Di Città where I got hit on the arm by an orange. It really hurt!”
“This is where we had to hide in someone’s hallway to escape the fray, because an oncoming battle cart blocked the narrow street. The owner obviously expected it. They’d put cardboard on the floor and covered the walls with plastic sheeting!”
“This is the shop where I bought your present!”
Mark looked dumbfounded and eventually admitted what I already knew, “I don’t remember you bringing me a present from Ivrea…”
Boys, huh?! I don’t know why I bother. I could have saved myself a fortune by just asking him about fabulous presents I never bothered to buy six months after his birthday or Christmas.
I didn’t divulge the Universal Carnevale Get Out Of Jail Free Card. He could have countered with the rest of the saying, “But at carnevale anything goes, e chi si offende è un gran maiale!” – and anyone who gets offended is a big pig! But I didn’t want to encourage him.
It’s the Italian equivalent of “Didn’t mean it! April Fool!” and is handy to keep up your sleeve for those awkward moments when you tell your boss what you really think of them!
We checked out Ivrea’s medieval castle, which Nobel-prizewinning poet Giosuè Carducci dubbed, ‘castello dalle rosse torri’ – the castle of the red towers.
It was built by Amedeo VI of Savoy, who was known as The Green Count. He wasn’t the Incredible Hulk, or an early exponent of environmental awareness – and he didn’t die of gangrene. He was a keen fighter, and simply settled on green as his tournament colour.
Or was it really orange?
Did you know that in their natural state, most oranges are green? Orange skins contain two pigments; chlorophyll (green), and carotenoids, so named because they make carrots orange – although I hate to break it to you, but carrots aren’t orange either!
Orange carrots were selectively bred from the original purple, yellow and white varieties, which are now regaining popularity as ‘heritage’ strains. As vegetables go, orange carrots are a rebellious root. At various periods in history, they were banned from Dutch markets, depending on the political fortunes of William of Orange and the Dutch Royal Family. Who ever thought that eating your boiled beef with orange carrots could be an act of sedition!
Orange oranges are actually green oranges that have either been cold treated, or ‘gassed’ with ethylene to break down the chlorophyll. Or they’ve been dyed!
The word ‘orange’ does not even describe the colour. It derives from the Sanskrit nārangah, which refers to the tree, which was native to northeast India, and parts of China and Myanmar. The Europeans purloined the phrase (naranja in Spain, arancia in Italian and, possibly, a norange in English) and used it to describe everything, including the bright colour of the fruit after a cold snap. When it’s chilly, in the same way that autumn leaves change colour, the clever tree re-absorbs valuable chlorophyll and leaves the orange carotenoids in charge.
So, maybe Amedeo VI was really the Orange Count!
On the way back, Mark found a phone shop. I sat outside on the pavement with four dogs for so long that if I’d put down a hat, people would have thrown coins at me. In the end, I repaired to a chair a short distance down the road, which, as luck would have it, was outside a bar. Mark joined me about half way down my first half-litre of Weissbier. I assured him that 250GB of data for €9.99 a month was reasonable compensation for the hardship of my wait.
Diego, the barman, was very friendly and recommended some delicious local beers. We tried an Angelo Poretti, flavoured with AROMA HOPS. Did you get that? AROMA HOPS! We Brits have a long tradition of scattering East Kent Goldings, Cascade and Fuggle all over the place while brewing classics like ‘Roger and Out’ (Sheffield – and the world’s – strongest beer), Bishop’s Finger (from Shepherd Neame, Britain’s oldest brewery) and Brains SA (‘Skull Attack) from Wales. Yet I have never encountered these flavours in a standard Continental brew!
If you’ve followed me for a while, you’ll know that I was once a professional beer taster. So, let me give you some history.
Long ago, high on a mountain near Cuvio, lived a young brewer called Angelo, who learned about hops and then said, “let’s go…”
He was keen – off to Bohemia like Barry Sheene, searching for zing to match beer with cuisine…
In the late 1800s, Angelo Poretti went a’questing through Austria, Bohemia and Bavaria in search of fine hops. His mission was to brew beers specifically to complement food. On his return, he built his birrifico (brewery) at the foot of the Campo Dei Fiori hills. His beers are numbered according to the number of hop varieties used – Tre Luppoli (Three Hops) to – guess how many in the champagne beer 10 Luppoli Le Bollicine Dorata (The Golden Bubble).
We enjoyed his creations so much we had to try another. Then another. As a beer taster, I can assure you this was mostly applied research, although I did enjoy sitting outside on a balmy Italian evening in April with my beloved. It was what happened next that made it all go wrong…
As we were about to leave, Diego brought us vintage tequila with cinnamon oranges on the house. It was so delicious we had to have another. After that, my memories go slightly skewiff, as did my photographs of the sunset over the Dora Baltea. As I battled The Vortex, as I used to call the whirling sensation that sometimes followed an evening out with friends at University, the crisps and nibbles Diego provided had to suffice as dinner.
Now, I have a question for you:
How many adapters do you need to fill an LPG tank?
The answer is, “More than the eight we had with us!”
When we tried to fill up, the one that looked like it should fit didn’t. Stupidly, we hadn’t tried it when we had our new LPG tank installed – because it looked right! But the adapter fitted our refillable gas bottles, so, in what is probably LPG protectionism, the thread was just-different-enough to make it exclusive. A bit like the smörgåsbord of bloody USB adapters you have to carry because every manufacturer uses a slightly different version.
We’d sold our refillable gas bottles, so an inability to refill would leave us with no hot water or cooking facilities. Since the temperature had settled around a wonderful 25°C (77°F), at least we no longer needed heating.
The man at the filling station sent us to a shop called Ricambi Auto. They were very helpful and produced a variety of adapters in every shape and size, except one that would fit.
The man at Ricambi sent us to Toninelli, where we arrived at 12:02 to find it closed for pranzo – lunch – from 12:00 until 14:00. I decided to buy some fresh fruit from the stall next door, but dithered for too long making a much-needed cup of tea, and found that closed for lunch too!
When Toninelli re-opened, we realised we’d found one of those wonderful old-fashioned companies who would not let a customer leave the premises until they’d sorted out our problem. There was no sharp intake of breath, no ‘Have you got an appointment?’ or ‘We’re busy and can’t fit you in until three weeks on Thursday if the moon aligns with Mars”. They dropped everything and joined in a lengthy bout of head scratching, faltering Italian and pidgin English.
They didn’t have an appropriate adapter, but the solution we eventually arrived at was to switch the fill nozzle on the tank to fit one of the multitude of adapters we did have. Simples!
Two workmen spent over an hour solving our problem, then charged us €30 for their trouble. I’m sure they had better things to do on a Wednesday afternoon, but this is just one reason I so love Italy. It is a country full of the kindest people!
Our onward journey took us across the Italian plain. It was as flat and featureless as a sheet of graphene until we approached the green castle-topped hills of the Langhe in the distance. Despite termperatures in the mid-twenties Celsius (high-seventies Farenheit), signs on the motorway dictated that snow chains were mandatory until the following day!
A dust devil whirled across a dry field. Other fields were flooded. In these, tall exotic-looking wading birds patrolled the waters. They were the size of storks and mostly white, with black necks and heads, which extended into heavy downward-curving beaks. I identified them later as black-headed ibis.
Then, the satnav did what it does best and led us on a bizarre and inexplicable detour through the hills. It was beautiful, if a bit nerve wracking after the smoking brake episode, and the resulting advice to ‘go around mountains or through them’ to avoid burning through our brake linings.
We stopped in the huge car park right by the castle in Casale Monferrato and led the pups towards the River Po.
“Is there anywhere to let the dogs run?” we asked a chap walking a labrador cross pup.
“Yes!” he replied. “Here!”
He introduced himself as Bradar, and we joined him and Brewster on their walk. He was the first Albanian we’d met on our trip, and couldn’t have been more friendly.
“There’s a beach just up here,” he said, as he lit up a substantial herbal cigarette that fans of the cult film Withnail and I might recognise as a Camberwell carrot. (No relation to the seditious root vegetable. The nomenclature references the shape and place of invention.)
The pups enjoyed their scamper through the fluvial park on the banks of the Po as much as we did. Floods had draped tree branches with all kinds of debris, like a strange sculpture park. They reminded me of the giant furry Wookiees in the Star Wars movies, or the haystacks we’d seen in Romania. Once we reached the beach, The Fab Four all dived in for a refreshing swim, although they couldn’t encourage Brewster to get his paws wet.
Brewster was in training. Ever quick on the uptake, our Rosie soon worked out that every time Bradar called “Brewster”, there was a small piece of sausage to be had. Rosie was the only member of The Pawsome Foursome who attended puppy classes, because she did not seem to respond to training.
Once enrolled, she outshone everyone. We realised our mistake was trying to moderate the number of treats she was getting. Ask Rosie to do anything in return for food, and she’s straight on it. Rosie lost no time in sorting her sausage strategy. She trotted along at Bradar’s heels like a Crufts Supreme Champion.
Since dinner hadn’t defrosted, we opted for our longed-for pizza and beer in Pizzeria Santa Lucia, a short hop from our park up. Mark caused a slight delay by deploying the Fairy Liquid once again to address yet another gas smell from the truck. My stomach contracted – we’d had more gas leaks than the Elgin platform, one of the North Sea’s biggest ever, and once again, my faith-in-the-mother-ship was starting to waver. I foresaw a non-drone-related ball of flames incident and started to wish we hadn’t messed with the gas installation in a foreign country. Mark reassured me,
“It’s nothing to do with the valve changing. It was a loose connection.”
Our first pizza in Italy was worth the wait. For €7 each, my aubergine and asparagus and Mark’s pear and gorgonzola were as good as any we have had anywhere. An Estonian couple at the next table said there was an even better pizza restaurant near the park. If it was better than Santa Lucia, it truly must have been exceptional!
Santa Lucia wasn’t a romantic restaurant; it was brightly coloured and brightly lit, but The Fab Four were welcome and the atmosphere was wonderfully convivial.
“How much did you miss this in lockdown?” I asked Mark.
The owner was very friendly and welcoming, although he did a double take when we ordered a 0.75 litre bottle of Weissbier each.
“Due?” – Two? he asked.
When I confirmed, I nearly followed up with, “Well, we are British!”
We drink pints and have a reputation to keep up!
By now, we had spent nine months camping off grid from official campsites in The Beast, but our overnight in Casele Monferrato was the first time I’d felt vulnerable and uncomfortable.
Because our cab moves completely separately from the habitation box, torsional strains made it impractical to fit a cab tunnel or crawl-though. This safety feature would allow us to drive away from danger without exiting the vehicle.
At 1 a.m., I was awoken by screeching tyres, blaring radios and honking horns. I lay awake for hours, fearful that if the joy riders attacked The Beast, we had no way out…
Mark was deeply concerned and snored his way through the lot.
“You should have woken me!” he said.
I’ve experienced his middle-of-the-night rampages against inconsiderate partygoers before. I didn’t want to pit him against a gang of indeterminate number in the wee small hours, clad in nothing but injured dignity and underpants.
At 7 a.m., we got a second rude awakening. A man knocked on the door and asked us to move. Apparently, we had set up camp in the middle of a fruit market!
It was Maundy Thursday. Signs around the car park announced a tow-away zone for the Monday and Friday markets, but perhaps market dates had moved because the following day was Good Friday.
Mark and I complied of course, but did snigger to each other,
We’d like to see them try to tow The Beast away!
Join us next time as we get evicted, host a gunman, then go on the Tuscan run!
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The original post for The Battle of the Oranges forms the basis of a chapter in my new book, It Never Rains But It Paws – A Road Trip Through Politics And a Pandemic.
My book has already received multiple five-star reviews, like the one below. If you enjoyed reading this excerpt, perhaps you might like to catch up with the rest of our puppy and pandemic adventures, when we found ourselves locked down in Europe’s No. 1 coronavirus hotspot!