The Battle of Monteveglio
This is a four day weekend in Italy in celebration of la Festa della Repubblica, comparable to our 4th of July. Since my original plans for Saturday didn’t quite pan out, I jumped online and searched to see what festivals were in the area. Being such a major holiday I was surprised to find that my only real choices nearby were between a farm equipment festival and a power yoga event. Not exactly what I was after.
Looking as far over as Bologna one festival caught my eye — Le veglie di Bacco (The Vigils of Bacchus). Located in the mountain-top borgo of an ancient abbey that sits above the town of Monteveglio, it was a good two hour drive away on the back roads through three provinces. But since it was a beautiful spring day, that was no problem at all.
The two hour drive turned into three as I wasn’t in any particular hurry and turned off the main road whenever I would see something interesting off in the distance. One of those stops was at the fortress in Bazzano, which happened to be completely empty during my visit. Walking through the large gate I found myself in a grassy courtyard surrounded by the outer walls and a view of the town below. The fortress, now an architectural museum, stood quietly with a sparsely decorated church and clock tower visible to the town beneath.
Finally pulling into the festival close to 9pm, I grabbed a bite to eat at the only food stand around. They had a choice of crescentina, known in our area as gnocco fritto (fried bread), or a single tigella with prosciutto, coppa di testa and/or a local cheese inside. I picked the crescentina with coppa di testa and cheese and wandered around a bit through the market. Coppa di testa is made up of little pieces of meat from the head of pigs and possibly other parts I shouldn’t share with you and has a really strong taste that takes some getting used to. I should’ve gone with the prosciutto.
Not much was happening in Monteveglio so I grabbed a ticket for the bus that would haul me up the mountain on a road barely wider than itself to the Borgo dell’Abbazia. It’s a 1.5 mile trip and the many signs announcing that the last bus down will leave at 10pm let me know that I, along with most others, would be hoofing it down the mountain in the middle of the night since that was when the festival was scheduled to end.
Before entering the festival, every visitor was stopped at the gate and asked the simple question, “Red or White?” The answer determined the color of bandanna you were handed for what was explained as, “The Final Battle.” Dum dum duuuuuuuuum.
Inside the festival were blacksmiths, weavers, thatchers and pottery makers dressed in period clothes demonstrating their various trades. Others walked around dressed as nobles, squires, lepers covered in bandages and other random villagers. The best costumes I saw were of a group of men with long beards dressed as friars mingling with the crowd. Back when I went to the Renaissance Fair in Texas, I always dressed as a friar and so I noted how authentic their costumes were. I walked towards one of them to ask for a picture only to quickly realize — they weren’t costumes.
At the far end of the borgo where the abbey sits, they had a jousting arena and games for kids. The inside of the church had the same fascinating architectural style as the duomo at Modena with the sanctuary one flight of stairs up and a crypt directly beneath it one flight of stairs down. I tried to sneak a photo of the inside, but one of the (real) friars was giving me the evil eye and I deftly put my camera back in my pocket.
I slipped into a line at one of the food stands to try out one of the desserts available and met the Irish university student, Vincent, and his Italian girlfriend who were in line behind me. They later introduced me to a group of their friends who came down from Pavia to stay in one of the apartments inside the borgo and I hung out with them for the rest of the evening. We watched a performance of a mythological story very similar to what I saw at Brisighella with dancers on stilts and fireworks strapped to every appendage of their bodies dancing around each other lighting the occasional spectator on fire. I thought about explaining the story as I understood it explained to me, but even now I’m still confused. Something about Zeus, women in plastic bubbles and fire breathing cows. Or as we like to say in Austin, a Tuesday night on 6th.
It was near midnight and tension filled the air, bandannas fastened tightly to our foreheads, menacing growls on our faces. We were outnumbered at least 2 to 1. The final battle was imminent. We took our weapons in hand, the ever dangerous and highly volatile foam balls in socks, and stood shoulder to shoulder against a greater foe. “VIA!” In less than a second the air was filled with crisscrossing red and white spheres flying aimlessly towards the opposite sides of the field. Vincent hurriedly organized groups of fighters to stave off the incoming attacks and I was using my patent-pending throw-like-a-girl tactic to win sympathy from the enemy. But alas, our efforts were in vain and my shoulder giving out on me forced me to the sidelines.
Leaving about 1am, I started walking down the mountain in the pitch black without even the moonlight to show me where I was going. I heard some noise around the corner and caught up with another group ahead of me with torches in hand singing Bella Ciao all the way down the hill. The streets were empty and the stands were closed and I hopped in my car for the two hour drive back home.