When you purchase a ticket for the Balestro del Girifalco in Massa Marittima you're not just buying a seat to watch a magnificent medieval crossbow competition in a spectacular setting, but also a truly wonderful opportunity to become part of an event that runs through the blood of every generation in this beautiful Maremma hill town.
Of all the events in Tuscany, this is without a doubt one you won't want to miss.
Yes, the Balestro del Girifalco - especially in the height of August - is an attraction that brings welcome and much needed tourists and Italian holidaymakers to this beautiful middle ages and Renaissance town. But, that said, the Balestro hasn't given itself over to become just a show. And nor will it in any foreseeable future for one reason: because it is part of everyday local life here in my home town.
At this point you may be asking, "how can a twice a year competition be a part of everyday life?". Well, because the archers and "sbandieratori" - flag throwers - practise all year long. Religiously. This is serious stuff.
And because the Balestro del Girifalco literally runs in the blood of generations of a family, from grandfather to grandson and granddaughter. All of whom hold the possibility of participating in huge esteem.
It brings with it fiercely fought rivalries: but unlike those of medieval times, they don't involve murders! But clandestine Machiavellian strategy meetings, yes!
And whole sections of the town decorated in "their" colours. The yellow and blue of the "torre" (tower) in flames of the Terziere di Borgo, the red and gold of the Terziere di Cittanuova, and the black white and gold of the Terziere di Cittavecchia.
Every toddler and the pushchair, mum, dad, and grandfather wearing the "sciarpa" (scarf) of their Terziere.
And whole sections of the steps of Massa Marittima's spectacular "duomo" (cathedral) - where the locals always go to watch the event - filled with youth chanting, singing, and performing stadium "waves" with home-made banners held high when their Terziere nobility and hero archers arrive.
Notwithstanding that this competition is held twice every year, there is always an incredible atmosphere in the air - a mix of family, tradition, rivalry, excitement and anticipation of sheer skill.
To sit amongst this community as an outsider - but without being made to feel as such for a moment - and watch the whole piazza light-up with rivalry and "allegria" (joy), is a privilege.
If you look at the the photograph above it could have been taken at a football match and you would be forgiven for thinking twice about choosing to sit as a stranger amongst these these Italian "youth". And, at an international football match in today's world, with my young daughter at my side, I would too. But this isn't a football match, it is the Balestro del Girifalco. And it is Massa Marittima in rural Italy.
Their exuberance is heart felt support for their "Terziere" archers. Letting them know that they are there in support, encouraging them before they take the stand, one by one, in front of the world. Telling them that they are the best.
And this is Italy where undiluted "passione" (passion) runs through everything.
At the Balestro grown men run to the target to see where each arrow - especially the first few for they will often as not decide the match - has found its target, and shout information around the square.
At the Balestro grown men cry with emotion and joy at being declared the winning archer of the Balestro: an enormous honour.
At this point don't be tempted to leave the scene.
Stay to see him be lifted high into the air all awhile people alight from their seats and fill the whole piazza, congratulating him. Hear the songs of the winning Terziere ring out, over and over again.
The winner receives a golden arrow and his home Terziere takes home a prized painted silk banner.
Watch him be lifted again to be congratulated with hugs and kisses by local dignitaries, now too on their feet in their "box".
And then when the photographers have stopped shouting instructions at him and he is free again, see him join his Terziere on the steps of the duomo, and witness the emotion and tears that swell up again in his face. This is the beginning of a celebration that will go on all through the night - the whole Terziere will be dining together - and into the morning. No young son or daughter of the Terziere will be going to school the next morning :)
Walk back to your car and hear the question asked of you from an old lady leaning out of her apartment window high up in a side street... "Who won, who?".
Then you will have experienced the rare thing that the Balestro del Girifalco in Massa Marittima offers its visiting spectators. A chance to be - for a precious few hours - a part of the heart of a small Tuscan rural community. What more can I say? Buy your ticket. :)
Go watch the video...
TIP: The video is best watched in its HD setting. Click on the cog wheel at the bottom right of the video to choose 720p HD and then you will be good to go.
The fourth Sunday in May and on the 14th of August.
Everything kicks off at 17:30.
The May event, falling outside of the peak of summer, is less crowded and has a very much more local town event feel to it. Just as amazing to listen to and watch if you happen to be there, but more relaxed. Another reason if you need one - apart from the fact that it is one of the best months to visit Italy and flight prices are cheaper - to make a visit to Maremma off season.
The Balestro del Girifalco isn't just wonderful pageantry that fills this spectacular town with colour, but a continuation of the fascinating history of this spectacular medieval and Renaissance city.
The men of Massa Marittima have been skilled crossbow archers since at least the fourteenth century, and in all probability long since before too. The surviving documents from the "Il Costitutum Civitatis Massae" (the civil constitution) tell of the "Magister Balistrarum" - the Master of the Crossbows - and of the all important "Camerario" - the custodian of the city's crossbows and other arms.
And then there is the 1476 Resolution of the Grand Council - the "Consiglio Maggiore" - that established a crossbow competition every three months to provide the young men of the city laudable exercise and diversion from hunting!
One of the Italian medieval crossbows loaded and ready. Each is an accurate reproduction of those used by men of this city in the fifteenth century.
The wooden conical "Corniolo" target projects 42cm from its black (45cm diameter) base with a white end diameter of only 13 cm. It is attached to the wall of one of the ancient palazzo's in the square (above the entrance to a pizzeria that has to shut it's doors for the event!) a mere thirty-six metres from the archers!
And the Corniolo isn't just placed in the "heart" of a Gyrfalcon - "Girifalco" - after which the competition is named for decorative reasons, but because this bird of prey has for centuries here symbolically represented the enemy.
The first shot is taken and the arrow arrives so very close to the bulls-eye in the "Corniolo", straight away pegging the level of the competition very high.
One arrow has now taken near bulls-eye position and will be very hard to dislodge or beat now.
Only a couple of archers left to take their shots and it will all be over.
And as testimony - if needed, to their skill, at the May 2015 Balestro del Girifalco when the majority of these photographs were taken, of the twenty-four arrows shot, twenty-two of them hit the target! No mean feat I can tell you.
If you haven't obtained a window view by renting one of the best holiday apartments in town - see below - then you have two choices. The main piazza is cordoned off and entrance is by ticket with the "ticket office" right next to the duomo steps in Via Ximenes.
A seat in the stand that you can see in the photograph below costs Euros 15,00 per adult.
A seat - unassigned, you find your own place - on the steps of the duomo - costs Euros 8,00 per adult. Entrance for children under the age of 12 years is free.
A tip if you have young children with you and don't think that they will sit still through the whole competition - it takes about two hours (even one adult friend of mine got twitchy sitting in one place on the stand for so long!).
Do what the locals do and choose a duomo step seats. That way you can easily pop out and back again for supplies - see below - or trips to the toilet, and they can move around at the top of the steps to get a better view of the archers as they take aim and play with the local children in safety below the bell tower.
Or, if you don't think that they will manage that, arrive in time at the beginning to find a strategic position in the town to watch the wonderful spectacle of the medieval processions with music through the streets - the colours and sounds are truly something for the senses - buy a gelato and leisurely explore the town. And then, just before the climax of the competition return to the piazza as the gates that shield the event from those who haven't brought tickets are opened for the whole town to enter and watch for free the ultimate shots from the handmade crossbows.
You are going to need some sustenance to keep you going whilst the Balestro plays out: well that is my excuse anyway! And when there is a bar in town that serves some of the very best gelato for miles around, a combined bar, "gelateria" and "pasticceria" that has some of the most wonderful light pastries you could imagine as well as homemade chocolates... And tucked out of sight and mainly for the benefit of the archers, flag throwers and musicians, an impromptu stand selling something that your children will love you for if you succumb! Well, you can't really say no, now can you ;)
You'll find the gelato in Bar Centrale, along the main street through town - Via della Liberta - next door to the pharmacy. It's the one heading off the piazza to the left in the above photograph.
TIP: for the full Italian experience don't forget to ask for "panna" too, on top of your scoops. Then your only problem is going to be eating it before the whole thing falls off! Flavours tend to be stacked leaning tower of Pisa style around here! I have lost count of the number of times the whole of the whipped cream top has landed in my lap!
Another tip: unless there are plenty of family hands to help, get your money out first before ordering. It becomes an acrobatic act to pay, hold purse, take change and lick the fast melting, cream rocking gelato at the same time! I know you didn't need to know that, but saying just the same...
The bar that produces the best pastries in town is at the end of that same street in Piazza Camillo Benso di Cavour: Pasticceria Gelateria di Petrai. It's outdoor tables also make for a perfect place for a coffee and watching everyday life in Italy. The costumed parade into the piazza passes there too and opposite makes for a great photographic opportunity.
The hot fried "zonzelle" you will find being served by the osteria adjacent to the Museo di Archeologia (Archaeological Museum). Never tried one? You should! Typical Tuscan snacks don't get devoured with much more gusto than these around these parts. If I tell you that simply put it is fried pizza dough you will wander what all the fuss is about, until you bite into one liberally rolled in salt (Italian's don't worry much about salt intake) or sugar that is!
The osteria is located on the left of the museum if you are facing it and the only access whilst the Balestro is in swing is via the cathedral steps. Another reason to purchase a duomo steps seat :) Just don't tell everyone as they only produce a small amount!
The best place to stay in Massa Marittima for the Balestro del Girifalco just happen to be the best holiday apartments in town too :)
Wonderfully restored and spacious - you couldn't ask for a more historic setting or great hosts - they will give you a view of the whole event from your own room. Watch the world in all its colours and hear the music resounding through the streets from the comfort of your own window. Pop downstairs to get close and for a much needed gelato! And then up again for the flag waving show and competition. The best window seats in the house are in your apartment :)
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