Carnival in Italy is usually associated with the sophisticated costumes of Venice and the colorful carts of Viareggio, but there’s a place near Turin where locals prefer to fight hard with oranges at this time of the year…
Every year in late February the center of Ivrea, a tiny town near Turin, becomes the stage of one of the most unusual carnival celebrations in the world, the Battle of the Oranges. Put it simply, this is the recreation of the battle that took place between the town’s villagers and its tyrannic rulers back in the middle ages. Here are some notes following my experience this year.
The story behind the battle
This event is steeped in history. Back in the XII century, the then-lord of Ivrea instituted a law with which the newly married women in his territory were obliged to spend their wedding night with him. While most women went along with it for fear, Violetta, the local miller’s daughter, refused to sleep with the nobleman and cut off his head. This ignited a revolution against the oppressive rulers, and from that day Violetta became a symbol of freedom.
The Battle of the Oranges revokes this dark piece of local history, with participants split into commoners and noblemen and the orange representing the tyrant’s head.
How it works
The battle is played between nine teams on foot, representing the commoners, and the orange-throwers (aranceri) on horse-drawn carts, playing the role of the guards. Each of the nine teams belong to a specific town’s district and there are three main battle grounds: Piazza di Città, Piazza Ottinetti and Piazza Freguglia.
If you are not a member of one of these teams, then you must wear a berretto frigio (phrygian cap), the traditional red hat that marks you as a spectator and not a target. This hat symbolizes the pursuit of freedom and wearing it is a sign of solidarity with the insurgents.
There is also a fantastic historical parade taking place on each day of the battle. Participants include Violetta and a series of characters representing the historical heritage of Ivrea, such as the General and his staff, the Assistant Grand Chancellor and the Podestà. The name of the girl playing the role of Violetta is announced on the Saturday before the first battle.
When to go
The battle takes place over three consecutive days at the end of the Carnival season, from Sunday to Fat Tuesday. Sunday can be intensely crowded and it is also the only day when you are charged to access the town center. I recommend going on Tuesday, when the winning team is announced with a ceremony in front of the town hall (although to be honest with you I still don’t have a clue how the winner is actually determined).
What to wear
Wear your ugliest clothes. Seriously, leave your expensive bags or designer jackets at home, because that red hat doesn’t really guarantee that you won’t be hit by oranges. Also, make sure to wear some slip-resistant shoes, because after the battle the streets are covered in a thick orange pulp that makes them very slippery.
What’s the point?
This event is sometimes labelled as dangerous and perceived as an enormous waste of food. Firstly, this event may seem crazy, but there’s a lot of planning and organization behind the scenes, with tens of volunteers that work hard to make sure everything runs smoothly. Secondly, the 700 tons of oranges brought in for the battle from Sicily and Calabria (from certified companies only) were originally destined to be pulped and what remains of them at the end of the event is used to produce energy and compost heap.
I was actually pretty concerned for the horses, but the reality is that they are the stars of this event and during the battle there are always people around to make sure they are not hit by oranges.
Where to stay
To fully enjoy the party, staying overnight is highly recommended, especially on Fat Tuesday when you can attend also a fantastic closing ceremony at night (check out Il Tuchino B&B here). Alternatively, you can use Turin as a base and get to Ivrea by train (it’s just about an hour, tickets and timetable here).
- Oranges literally fly everywhere and wearing a red hat doesn’t really save you. You can stay behind safety nets during the battle, but to be honest that’s not fun, so don’t be afraid of walking into the battle ground, just watch out and shield your face
- Don’t forget to cover your camera and phone with a transparent plastic bag to protect them from all that sticky orange juice
- For further details about this event you can check out the official website here
Locals consider the Battle of the Oranges to be an important part of their culture and I must say that it’s one of the most spectacular events I’ve ever seen, one that sees the joyful participation of the entire community – and leaves a whole town smelling of freshly squeezed oranges!
Until next time,