The medieval festival in the small Tuscan hill town of Montevettolini takes place in September for one day only. Montevettolini nestles in the hills about a half hour’s drive from Lucca and dominates the hinterland a few miles south of Montecatini Terme.
This annual medieval experience is a crowd drawing event; being a fortified hilltop town there is only one road in and one road out and both of these are hardly wide enough for an ox-drawn cart. Consequently on the day of the Festa visitors’ cars straddle the olive tree lined verges for miles in both directions. One needs to arrive relatively early to avoid a strenuous uphill climb to the town gate.
We do find parking and after a short walk to the town walls we wait in a queue for the door in the great heavy gate to open and when it does the fierce gatekeepers clad in studded leather cuirasses and fully armed with sword and lance bark unintelligible questions at us in Italian. As visiting emissaries from a far-off foreign land we are closely scrutinised and eventually allowed passage. We drop a generous voluntary stipend in the basket by the gate to appease them and proceed to cross a temporal boundary.
Once inside our twenty-first century world disappears and we are in the thirteenth century jostled by jesters, pilgrims, crusaders, lepers, owl keepers, bee keepers, falconers and town dignitaries and merchants. All of Montevettolini participates in this richly concocted illusion accompanied by convincing actors and musicians who wander the streets with medieval instruments playing music not unlike that of Galicia or Brittany.
The broad square adjacent to the town gate is flanked by medieval buildings. All modern signs have been concealed and evidence of our world is banished for the evening. In the main square there is a fascinating programme. As dusk descends we watch a falconry event as pigeons flee to safety in the tall church belfries when the hunting birds soar high. An Angel and one of his Apostles stalk the square accosting us innocents. Later as darkness falls town dignitaries gather for a grand candle-lit procession lead by an important crusading nobleman.
Small events occur in open spaces by churches. The musicians play and a maiden waits to be ducked in a pond if only someone can toss a small ball into the bulls eye net. The narrow streets are full of stalls containing beautiful crafts, wine, breads , mushrooms, foods, costumes, posies, circlets of flowers, hats and demonstrations of candle making, carving and stone masonry. We turn into a street by the walls and are suddenly accosted by moans, wails, groans and begging from a colony of lepers who desperately grab our legs. Around another corner we encounter a collection of owls.
As the sun sets over distant hills in an enormous fireball we eat in the common hall. Our fare is basic but a substantial, even, some might claim, luxurious plate of beef and beans accompanied by a generous flagon of red wine.
When we finally exit the gate at midnight there is still a queue gathering to beg entry. Patiently the gate keepers ask their questions and allow them through when they make satisfactory responses.
We make our way back to Lucca wondering if Medieval life could really have been that much fun….