In the heady days of last summer when we naively imagined the Covid nightmare might be coming to an end, we managed to escape for twelve magical days in Croatia. This year, although the acute phase of the pandemic and its shocking novelty may have slackened into the weary familiarity of its chronic phase, the cumulative burden of a further year’s anxiety, uncertainty, separation and solitude had left us even more stale and depleted, but also with an even greater need to do something different, be somewhere different and see the world through a different lens in order to shake us out of our post-lockdown lassitude. However, another year of unpredictability and ever-changing rules had also made us wiser and more wary, so in late spring, with our vaccines lined up and the promised land of the white zone in which only the most basic restrictions remained drawing ever closer, we booked ourselves just six days in Tuscany (still taking care to ensure that last-minute cancellation would be possible). But despite the comparative modesty of our ambitions, those six days in late August turned out to be just as special and just as restorative as the previous year’s more adventurous trip across the Adriatic.
We started off with three nights in Arezzo, little more than a couple of hours away from us in Tuscany’s south-eastern corner, close to the border with Umbria and about 40km north of Lago Trasimeno. The opening line of Arezzo’s entry in our aged Lonely Planet guide, “heavily bombed in World War II”, had nearly put us off, but an acquaintance had warmly recommended it some years earlier, and now that we actually live here, we are in any event always keen to pay a brief visit those lesser-known places that stand in the shadows of their showier, more popular neighbours – Florence and Siena in Arezzo’s case – safe in the knowledge that should such a place prove disappointing, it won’t have spoilt a whole holiday. And despite its general sniffiness about the city, our Lonely Planet did concede that its ‘medieval centre packs some inspiring highlights’.
These highlights, not surprisingly, are all located within the ancient fortified walls that still almost completely encircle the city. And at last being able to enjoy once more the simple pleasure of ambling, map in hand, through an unfamiliar city’s ancient streets and discovering all these new and different sights was exactly what we had been longing for. They included a medieval fort, a cathedral and sundry other vast and tiny churches, all dripping with Renaissance artwork, an assortment of grand palazzi, several galleries and museums, and a Roman amphitheatre that is still in use as a performance space. The beating heart of the city, however, is the magnificent Piazza Grande. This broad, sloping square was originally a market place, with the tall, narrow merchants’ palaces built along the eastern and southern sides in the 14th century still standing as testament to its commercial roots. During the Renaissance, however, the square became the civic centre and the imposing Palazetto della Fraternità dei Laici and the elegant Logge Vasari were built alongside the church of Santa Maria della Pieve with its distinctive bell tower and the sombre episcopal palace on the northern and western sides.
As if this glorious jumble of architectural periods and styles were not arresting enough, as we entered the square via a narrow alley in the north-west corner we were also greeted with the sight of large, brightly-coloured flags fluttering from practically every window in every building, while around the edges, tiered banks of temporary seating were being erected, and across the middle ran a banked-up track made from tightly packed earth and sand – and a crackle of anticipation hung in the late summer air among the clusters of dawdling tourists and busy workmen. The waiter at the café where, over a mid-morning cappuccino, we indulged in a little people-watching in an unsuccessful effort to work out what was going on eventually told us all this activity was in preparation for the Giostra del Saracino – the city’s biannual Saracen Joust. In response to our blank expressions, he directed us to the grand Palazzo dei Priori, which, as well as being the current town hall, also houses a museum of the joust that explains the history and traditions of this hugely popular, hugely spectacular event – to which our Lonely Planet guide, quite inexplicably, devoted not one single word.
We are not big museum-goers, but the colourful bustle in the Piazza Grande had piqued our curiosity and, coupled with an unaccountable keenness to test out our freshly downloaded Covid Passes, soon had us striding back across the square and up the hill to the town hall. Having successfully scanned our passes, the young and enthusiastic curator theatrically swung open the huge double doors that gave access to the exhibition and indicated the route we should take through the various rooms. Over the next hour or so, we learnt by means of the first-class immersive audio-visual displays in each of them that the joust, which takes place in late June and in early September, dates back to the Middle Ages when it was used for military training purposes. While it flourished throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, it fell into decline during the 18th and 19th centuries, but was resurrected in the early 20th century, since when it has grown into the day-long extravaganza of today (Covid restrictions notwithstanding), with its cast of some 350 costumed characters. These include a long procession of buglers, drummers, flag-wavers, jugglers, valets, crossbowmen and foot soldiers, as well as the Herald, the Registrar, the Field Steward, the Jury of score-keepers and the Judicature who make sure the byzantine rules are complied with. The real stars of the show, though, are the eight mounted Knights of the Joust. Organised into four pairs, each representing a different quarter of the town, they take it in turns to gallop at full speed across the square and, with the inked tips of their 3.5-metre-long lances, try to strike the highest scoring portion of the target fixed to the shield of the Saracen, a wooden effigy of “Buratto, Kind of the Indies”. After three nail-biting rounds, and frequently a tense tie-breaker too, the quarter represented by the two highest scoring knights is awarded the coveted Golden Lance by the Mayor. There follows a cannon salute and a Mass of thanksgiving held by the Bishop in the cathedral, and proceedings are rounded off with rowdy, night-long celebrations throughout the city.
Here’s the thing, though: the very fact that this September’s joust was happening the day after we left Arezzo did not disappoint us in the slightest. In fact, it came as a much-needed reminder that we could come back in subsequent years at the drop of a hat as such events are practically on our doorstep. The relative novelty of this for us had not so much worn off over lockdown as been shut away and completely forgotten about. And, slightly paradoxically, the simple fact that we felt able to say ‘never mind, we can always come another time’ did almost as much to lift our spirits as being there in the first place.
So we spent the rest of our time in the city contentedly wandering around the enticing maze of narrow, cobbled streets surrounding the Piazza Grande, poking around in their many antique shops and quirky boutiques, and deciding which of the dozens of long-established, family-run ristoranti, trattorie and osterie serving local specialities we would dine in. And each evening we still got a taste of the joust anyway, as horses were trotted in and out and around the square to familiarise them with the layout of the course, while bands of drummers from one quarter and teams of flag-wavers from another, all incongruously dressed in T-shirts and shorts, carried out their rehearsals in the evening cool of the near-empty streets.
There was another reason why we were not that bothered by missing the joust, though. It was the second half of our trip, and really why we had picked Tuscany as our destination in the first place: the Biennale Nazionale di Arte Fabbrile (National Blacksmithing Biennial) – held in Stia, barely 50km north of Arezzo. Yes, it would give Mr Blue-Shirt his first chance to swing a hammer in nearly four years, but so much more precious than that, it would give us the chance actually to meet up with a few of our blacksmithing friends whom we had not seen for over two years. So: joust-schmoust. We had proper, actual hugs to look forward to…
For more information on the Saracen Joust, go to https://giostradelsaracinoarezzo.it/la-storia/