Giorgio Pogliano of Turin sent me this colorful description of the Ivrea Carnevale, held on the traditional carnival date, 40 days before Lent.
Ivrea is a small city about 40 minutes North of Turin. It was the headquarters of the first (short-lived) post-Roman kingdom of Italy, around 1000 a.D. More recently it became typewriter and then computer city, headquarters of Olivetti. Right now, with the computer industry gone East, it's a city between jobs. It has its day of glory one time a year during Carnival, when a unique, exciting, anachronistic and most of all juicy orange battle takes place.
The battle is an allegoric representation of a local insurrection, in 1194, against Holy Roman Emperor Frederick of Swabia, a.k.a. Barbarossa (Red Beard). A local Joan of Arc, Violetta, supposedly started the insurrection, which resulted in the destruction of a castle that represented imperial power.
If Scottie could beam you up blindfolded in the center of Ivrea, by the left bank of the River Dora, on battle day, you would be immediately inebriated by the smell of thousands of crates of red juicy oranges, mixed with the pungent aroma of "Vin brulé", hot red and spicy wine. You'd be rubbed by a thousand elbows moving in every direction, you'd step on horse poop but most of all on a carpet of crushed oranges sometimes a foot high. You'd hear the trotting of the horses that pull high carriages full of helmeted and armored warriors of the tyrant. You'd hear the revolutionary chants of their attackers, the populace of Ivrea. And the cries of jubilation when Violetta la Mugnaia (the miller) passes on a low carriage and throws yellow mimosa flowers and candies at the crowd.
Now remove your blindfold. The first thing you'll see is a maelstrom of red hats. Violetta and the crowd wear long, bright red, Phrygian hats symbolizing freedom. They come from far away. They're called berretti di Frigia or berretti frigi, from the ancient area of Phrygia, in what is now Turkish Anatolia. They used to be worn by the worshippers of the sun. They were then worn, in ancient Rome, by emancipated slaves and finally became one of the symbols of the French Revolution: the red bonnet meant Liberté. When you walk around with a red hat in Ivrea, people say you're wearing the berretto frigio and therefore you must be free to pass unharmed. The red hat means you won't be throwing oranges and therefore no one will throw oranges at you. If you're near the battle areas (even if you're behind the protective nets) you'll still get orange shrapnel, but no direct hits.
But if you really want to have fun, you must go into the battle areas, remove your hat and take part in the battle. The carriages with the hated representatives of the Emperor take turns entering the battle zones. They let the horses canter, but not for long, because soon they get surrounded by unhelmeted and unarmored orange-throwing multitudes in medieval costumes. The armored warriors on the high carriages respond in kind, by throwing hundreds of oranges at the mob below.
My American friends were ecstatic. A bit wary at first, they soon got into the crazy spirit of the festival and let their children in the battle zones together with mine, so they could throw oranges. Our job was to make sure they didn't push their lucks: we allowed them four oranges per carriage, and didn't let them get too close to the thick of it. Andreas, 10, summarized it beautifully: "of all the things I've seen in Italy this is the one I'll remember forever, the most exciting one of all. What makes it so beautiful it that it makes absolutely no sense!"
The tricky part was the crossing of the Old Bridge area. That's the most exhilarating war scene. The streets are narrow, the orange pulp piles up so high that every once in a while they have to come with snow-removing tractors to clear it. There's only one narrow protective net in the center of the battle zone and so if you want to cross it (yesterday we did) with children you have to time it right. Until about fifty years ago it was really risky business, because they allowed to throw oranges from the windows too, which meant walking into a solid barrage of flying oranges, Phrygian hat or not. But now, in more civil times, the oranges fly strictly from the ground to the carriages and back. Everyone is really careful about not targeting red-bonneted "civilians", but "collateral damages" do occur: while protecting our children we all received a number of direct hits, none too painful but very juicy for our clothes.
As you leave Ivrea look at the river: it carries tons of spent oranges back down south.