Welcome to the Middle Ages!

Today is Ferragosto in Italy, or the peak of summer folk festivals. Almost every town or village arranges its own “festa” or “sagra”. The difference between them lies in the fact that in the first case the highlight of the program is a costume show, and in the second one – tasting of local specialties. Newsstands sell a special guide on these holidays, which is called “Borgi and sagre”.

I love the Italian Middle Ages and so I seek to visit as many folk festivals as possible. Although, each year it is getting harder and harder. The fact is that I have visited almost all the festivals, which are available without car. Last Friday, my friends and I took part in a very picturesque festival “Notte nell’Ilex” in a charming medieval town Elice (Province of Pescara). The tiny borough is situated in the middle of nowhere and moreover the festivity began at 22.30. So it is completely “tourist proof”.

To say the truth, when we drove for half an hour along a completely deserted road, I was afraid that no one is going to Elice and we also go in vain. However, when we finally arrived at the city, we saw lots of cars and crowds of people. We left the car at a free parking and went on foot to the historical center. I’ve never seen before a festival in Abruzzo which attracted so many people, not even the famous Giostra Cavalleresca in Sulmona!

Many guests came there to taste traditional dishes of Elice. The main local speciality is a home-made pasta mugnaia with various fillings. Near a ticket office, we were cordially greeted by lovely kids on donkey backs. We paid 3 euros and were immediately teleported to the Middle Ages. The program was very intense, and, according to a guidebook, events did not occur in one place, but all around the town.

Celebration of “Notte nell’Ilex” was held in Elice for the ninth time and lasted for a week. It involved the entire population of the town, young and old. Though, there are just about 1,750 inhabitants in Elice.

Usually, folk festivals are held according to a similar scenario. At the beginning, a procession (on foot, on horseback or in carriages) passes along the main street of the city, and after that a competition, giostra or palio, takes place in the central square. Spectators stand or sit for many hours watching these great shows. The observers play a rather passive part and a kind of glass wall exists between the participants and the audience.

What I definitely like about the festival in Elice is that the festivity took place all over the city. Every square, corner, lane or even courtyard was turned into a scenic area. The participants in medieval costumes mingled with the crowd. Every now and then, we met mendicant friars, or sinister figures with faces closed by acute-angled black caps with eye-slits. When we made our way in a narrow street, we saw a witch dragged by the soldiers, who struggled to tear away and shouted curses. It all happened so quickly that I did not manage to make a photo. We had an absolute illusion that we were wandering around a medieval town.

In the central square, we saw an old feudal lord with his wife and daughters sitting at the table. On both sides of the table, there were courtiers and musicians with ancient folk instruments.

Near a stone staircase, there stood proudly two falconers from Siena holding big falcons. Two fluffy owls sat on billets of wood and goggled at the crowd with round eyes.

We wandered in the crowd turning now and then to narrow lanes. At each corner, each tiny square, covered passage, staircase or terrace, something very interesting happened. Creative imagination of the organizers of the festival had no limit. We were very amused to see an iron cage with a skeleton that hung high in the arch.

We nearly fell into arms of a leper, who rang a bell and begged for alms, showed his bloody sores and tried to catch gaping passers-by. Fortunately, his attention was distracted by a pretty girl.

In the market square, artisans sold their handicrafts – candies and cakes, lace, wooden toys, wreaths of artificial flowers and even furs.

Near a church, we observed a ritual of exorcism. The possessed thrashed on the ground, his father lamented beside him, and Franciscans said prayers.

At every step, there were located botegi, artisan workshops, who demonstrated their craftsmanship. You could buy the articles, which they created before your eyes, or try yourself to make something. We dropped in a shop were three artisans were producing very beautiful and fragrant candles. We were shown the process of making candles. One man casted a candle from wax and another hung it at a big iron circle and braided it like a plait. My friend bought one honey-scented candle to bring it to Moscow.

In the neighboring area, there were located lace makers, who wove lace using a sort of Russian bobbins. Nearby, there were sold serviettes and towels, trimmed with lace or very original openwork earrings woven from metallic thread.

I observed from above a terrace covered with golden sand. A mosaicist was standing at his easel, designing an ornament and a square mosaic was lying on the sand. I really wanted to come and break his creative solitude, but I didn’t know how to reach him.

In one of the squares we saw a very picturesque jester with a tragic face, which reminded me of Rigoletto of the last act of Verdi’s opera. He recited a monologue and his voice was very expressive and sonorous.

Around the corner archers were teaching archery to children. Instead of targets, there were large circles, woven from straw.

When taking pictures enthusiastically, I nearly get under stilts. A girl in white walked effortlessly and rather melancholically on very high stilts among the crowd. I saw people on stilts last year in Sulmona;  they were walking in the empty space, but not among the crowd. Every now and then, we saw stilts-walkers pacing over people’s heads. It was rather thrilling. They moved so fast, that it was very difficult to capture them on a photo. Finally, one girl took compassion on me and stopped for a moment, so I could take a picture of her.

Suddenly we heard muffled sounds of music. In a covered passage, a very elegant signora sat on the steps and played an ancient stringed instrument. Beautiful melody and the noble image of the performer gave us a moment of peace and tranquility amidst the vibrant festival.

Our imagination was struck by a very picturesque old lady in a blue velvet dress who wore a very intricate mediaeval headdress which framed her tragic and expressive face. I immediately dubbed her as a fairy from the “Sleeping Beauty”; not a kind or wicked fairy, but a sad one.

The culmination of the festival was the knighting and the wedding. We returned to the central square, which was crowded by spectators. There were drummers and knights on horseback. Finally, there was a battle on swords between two young men. The baron conferred knighthood upon the winner and gave him the hand of his eldest daughter. After that, musicians played mediaeval instruments very gracefully and young peasant girls performed ancient dances. I managed to come nearer to the newly wed and make a picture of them.

Buon Ferragosto!

All posts about summer folk festivals in Abruzzo

The Renaissance Giostra Cavalleresca in Sulmona

A Very Merry Ferragosto in Cappelle sul Tavo

Food Festival in Villa Celiera, Abruzzo

A Tale of Two Princesses and One Horse

Useful link



13 Responses to “Welcome to the Middle Ages!”

  1. Tatiana, I love this post!! I also love medieval history. May I re-blog this at http://www.theitaliansouth.com? Sandy

  2. Reblogged this on The Italian South and commented:
    I love the photos, and Tatiana’s description of the festivals in Abruzzo! Look at those huge hawks in the right photo–or are they eagles?

  3. Thank you for this great story about your evening at this extraordinary festival in Elice. It sounds amazing and very atmospheric, especially as all of this took place at night. Your collage of photos at the top of this post is also fantastic and makes me want to experience all of this next year!

  4. Dear Nora, thank you very much for your kind comment. The festival in Elice has been a thrilling experience for me. I enjoyed every minute staing there.

  5. Интересен и блог и комментарии к нему. Много людей, увлечённых культурой и историей Италии. И это хорошо.

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