Sagra delle castagne (Chestnuts Festival)

 

As you surely know by now, sagre (roughly translatable as ‘food festivals’) are ubiquitous in Italy. Even the most common ingredient is often celebrated by several such events all over the country. While these festivals are frequently just an excuse to revive somehow sleepy small villages, other times they grow into seriously spectacular events that are worth visiting. Such a case is the Chestnuts Festival of Soriano nel Cimino, a small village in the province of Viterbo, not far from Rome. The village itself is honestly nothing special by Italian standards: it does feature a splendid castle and still Medieval-looking steep streets… but that’s just normal in central Italy. Same goes for its history, whose biggest events appear unremarkable to say the least. This notwithstanding, however, Soriano turned its meager resources into a full-fledged tourism industry – and far from being a tourist trap, the village actually offers an interesting program.

The festival itself supposedly takes place on the third weekend of October, but that’s just a very small part of a much larger celebration that extends throughout the month. Beside the special visits to the Orsini castle and its architectural beauties, the festivities begin with an art competition for the palio (a huge painting on fabric, to be hung on a pole) that will be awarded as a prize in the upcoming tournament. What’s peculiar here is how the contest is open to just everyone and how the works are judged without disclosing the authors first. As a result, in the history of Soriano’s prizes there have been masterpieces by famous artists and works by schoolkids, all equally beautiful. The tournament itself comes a little later, and it consists of a mix of two historical reenactment classics: a ring joust (where riders must thread their lances into small hanging rings) and an archery tournament. That is a colorful field day for the athletes from the four districts of the city, but an even more interesting competition takes place at the same time in the kitchens of Soriano’s restaurants. Here each district prepares historical recipes from different time periods, such as capon fricassee from the Reinassance, white rabbit stew Fourteenth-century style, apple candies from the Eighteenth century and more. The dishes are presented on ancient tableware and by costumed cooks and maids: they are first judged by a group of historians, then an unforgettable dinner begins for those who reserved a seat (sometimes years in advance).

The following week comes the time for heritage games. Rope pulling, sack running, ruzzola(an ancient cross between bowling and yo-yo), barrow race and more put the districts once again one against the other in an incredible display of skill, supported by the cheering public. Later on the focus moves to the historical parade, featuring over 700 people with costumes ranging from the early middle age to the Renaissance. Each district specializes in a different type of show: acrobatics, music, dance and so on.

The actual reenactment is a separate event recalling four important moments in the history of the village. As previously mentioned, the enthusiasm of the crowd is the best part of it, since the events themselves are nothing to speak about. How the show evolves in a giant party, however, sure has its merits. The final sub-event in the month-long celebration is the vojola (chestnut) awards ceremony – a sort of miniature Nobel prize presented to a number of prominent characters in the history of Soriano. The criteria for inclusion are loose enough to always involve a number of national celebrities, receiving a gold-plated chestnut for their achievements. And talking about chestnuts… Yes, the chestnut festival actually features them too. Roasted on open fires and offered for free to the public, or as ingredient in the recipes suggested by every local establishment, you can find them pretty much everywhere. But who has the time for them when there is so much to see all around?