Consider the orange.
At best, it’s an old-school scurvy remedy or a childhood snack. At worst, it’s an exasperating ordeal when the seedless treat you thought you’d bought turns out to be a pip-riddled nightmare.
What it’s never been – until now – is a weapon.
Welcome to the Battle of the Oranges, the most sophisticated food fight you’ll ever encounter.
History Of The Produce Protest
One of Italy’s most colourful festivals is steeped in local tradition and citrus juice.
Every February, in the tiny northern city of Ivrea, a battle is waged. In this battle there are no guns, no swords, no hand grenades. Instead the weapon of choice is 500,000kg of fresh oranges, carefully stockpiled for combatants to hurl at each other in a full-on fruit war.
Battaglia delle Arance, the Battle of the Oranges, is a re-creation of a historic fight between the local townsfolk and a ruling tyrant. Today the all-out orange assault attracts visitors from all over the world, but the event’s origins are decidedly more sinister.
Legend says that around 1200 AD Ivrea’s baron attempted to rape the daughter of a miller on the eve of her wedding. She refused to comply with the jus primae noctis, the right for a medieval lord to take the virginity of his serfs’ daughters, and exacted bloody revenge.
The rebellious young woman stormed the castle and beheaded the baron, freeing the town from his oppression with a stroke of her sword. The townspeople then battled his henchman, destroyed his palace, and declared themselves a free municipality.
The modern Orange Battle reenacts this rebellion. The people, represented by nine teams of orange-throwers on foot, fight the overlord’s army, portrayed by throwers on horse-drawn carts, in a symbolic battle that favours citrus missiles over actual missiles. Thousands flock to Ivrea’s streets to celebrate the festival of freedom each year.
The Juicy Details
What can you expect from this next-level food fight?
The core celebration takes place over three days in February, the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. The miller’s daughter, Violetta, is represented by a woman dressed in white with a red headdress, who tosses yellow flowers and candies to the crowd.
The oranges, which don’t grow in the foothills of the Italian Alps, are imported from Sicily. Nearly 100,000 spectators and 4,000 participants gather for their destruction. The latter are divided into nine teams: Picche, Morte, Tuchini, Scacchi, Arduini, Pantere, Diavoli, Mercenari and Credendari. Another 1,000 participants climb aboard fifty horse-drawn carts to play their adversaries.
The orange battle starts on Sunday at 2pm, following a procession to honour the woman portraying the miller’s daughter. Mardi Gras marks the end of the festivities, when awards are given to the top-performing teams. In between, expect fierce fruit combat, fine Italian food, sips of the local mulled wine, and no shortage of orange-induced injuries.
Attend the event at your own risk. You’ll notice the ‘palace guards’ sport protective clothing that looks like ancient armour. It’s not just about aesthetics. Bruises and black eyes are plentiful, and first aid services are on hand in case of worse injuries.
Technically, you’re supposed to be part of a team to participate in the battle. Foreigners are usually accepted if they pay a fee. If you’re brave enough to battle on the frontlines, consider negotiating beforehand how intense you want your involvement to be. Getting a cut is one thing, but getting a cut that’s rinsed in stinging citrus juice is quite another.
Those not inclined to join the ranks of the uprising can spectate from the battlefield, but risk battery by rogue oranges that miss their targets. More cautious spectators can view the proceedings from a safer perch behind the nets that are draped around buildings.
All observers are encouraged to purchase and wear, at all times, the Berretto Frigio or Phrygian Cap – a red hat that marks you as one of the revolutionaries. The cap should protect against any fruit intentionally being hurled your way, although it hardly eradicates the hazard of accidents. Note that spectators sporting the Berretto Frigio are not officially allowed to throw oranges, but in the chaos of the event a certain amount of rule-breaking goes unnoticed.
Regardless of what role you play, be sure to pack non-slip shoes. A slimy carpet of decimated citrus does not make for sure-footed stepping.
Things To Do Beyond The Fruit
The Battle of the Oranges is the clear highlight of the Carnevale di Ivrea, but it’s not the only activity to enjoy during the festival.
Don’t leave without trying the fagiolate, a delicacy of beans and cured pork. It can often be found for free in certain parts of Ivrea during the carnival. Wash the meal down with vin brulé, the local spiced wine, served hot.
For a respite from the flying fruit, wander Ivrea’s picturesque old town. A cathedral, a castle and a Gothic church await, as do some of the most important frescoes in northern Italy. Painted by Spanozotti, they date from the 14th century. For a longer adventure, journey 55 km south to see the Shroud of Turin.
If your idea of fun involves peel, pith, and the possibility of being clocked in the temple by a smoothie ingredient, mark your calendar for the next Battle of the Oranges.