Saturday, September 16, 2006

Maròstica and the Human Chess Game 9.8.06

Bob and I had read about the little medieval fortified city of Maròstica, in the Veneto, not far from Verona where, every other September, in even numbered years, they hold a human chess tournament. Knowing only that they re-enact a game that was played here in the 1400s, we made it our business to find how where and when it would actually take place. They have a pretty good website and we could have ordered tickets online, but instead we decided to get up early last Friday morning and drive there, knowing we would get the most accurate information that way. (definitely one of the benefits of living here!)

The sight of Maròstica that greeted us as we approached this city of 12,500 people was delightful! We could see the Castello Superiore on the top of the hill with the ramparts, the city walls, spilling down on either side with towers evenly spaced, completely surrounding the historic center and joining to the Castello Inferiore, the lower castle with flags flying everywhere. Like many people who come to Italy, we love the medieval castles! In the main piazza, adjacent to the lower castle, stands were set up on three sides, facing the giant chessboard of light and dark squares of marble set right into the pavement, a permanent fixture of the square.

We found the information office and discovered to our further delight that good seats were still available and got the best ones we could get for the Friday night performance. The young man who helped us told us that Saturday's tickets would be more expensive and Sunday afternoon, while costing the least, would not include the fireworks that he said were spectacular. He even looked through the stack of cancellations he had, to find the very best.

We explored the city a bit, walking around within the city walls and then driving up the road to the Castello Superiore to check out the view. The air quality lately in Verona has been very bad. When we first arrived I mentioned how hazy the air was and since then, it has been pretty clear. But these past couple of weeks, the air pollution has been very bad. We've had problems with burning eyes, allergy symptoms, Bob's asthma has been acting up and it has not made it easy to get great photos, as the visibility is so poor. This was really brought home to us when we stood at the top of the city and looked down. Yikes, the air was bad. Here was this lovely view and all gunked up with air pollution. Sad. And, not to mention, unhealthy. There have been a lot of stories in the newspaper about it and we hope they are trying to do something to improve it.

Bassano del Grappa

At any rate, we decided to go make a short visit to the nearby city of Bassano del Grappa and found it to be about three times the size of Maròstica and very cool too. It is the home of the Italian liquor of the same name (Grappa). It's a prosperous looking town and the main attraction in centro is the Ponte degli Alpini, the covered alpine-style bridge that spans the Brenta River and affords charming views of the city on either side.

Home for a Nap

Not wanting to embarrass ourselves and fall asleep in the middle of the chess game, we had planned to go home and take a nap, have some dinner and return to Maròstica in the evening. And, to be honest, we were not sure how exciting watching a chess match would actually be, but, hey, everything seems more fascinating when the participants are wearing those gorgeous medieval costumes and the setting is a 15th century castle! The event was scheduled to begin at 9:30, typical for anything in Italy and would most likely end around midnight.

Rain Threatens

The sky in the meantime had begun to look like rain might be imminent and we gathered our umbrellas, berating ourselves for not asking what happens in the event of rain. By the time we arrived in the city, storm clouds were definitely forming. The gates had not yet opened and we found a spot under a portico to wait. Within the next few minutes, the lightning began, followed by the thunder and a torrential downpour ensued! Everyone rushed for cover. (This is when we had our conversation with the sweet young couple who couldn't wait to get home to Alabama so they could have a good pizza and some sweet tea.)

We were certain the event would be cancelled. Miraculously though, after about an hour the rain began to subside and the storm clouds blew away. The organizers scurried around drying off the seats - all 4,000 of them - and proceeded to let us into the stands surrounding the chessboard.

The Performances and the Tournament

For the next two and a half hours we were completely spellbound and thoroughly entertained by the spectacle. Our seats were perfect, directly facing the castle. The event re-enacts the story of how these two young noblemen, both vying for the hand of the beautiful princess had vowed to fight to the death to win her. Her father, being a wise king, instead insisted that they play a game of chess and the winner would get to marry the princess. Not a bad deal even for the loser, who would be granted the hand of the younger sister and everyone would live happily ever after. You know I eat this stuff up being such a hopeless romantic!

So, not only do they recreate the game, they recreate a village scene, with the little market, the jugglers, the jesters, the sense of being in a medieval place. Over 650 locals take part in this production.

It began dramatically. The sky was already dark and the stage empty. We watched as two men in costume, silently poured something all around the edges of the chess board and all eyes were on the stage as they lit it and the flame caught and flared, traveling all around the board till a burning, glowing outline of the square appeared before us, blazed for a while and went out. Wow!

Then, there were parades, flag throwing demonstrations, dancing, knights on horseback, the king and queen and all their entourage entered and took their seats directly below where we sat, which meant that everyone who entered the stage area would have to pass directly in front of them, and in front of us! Visiting nobility from the nearby cities entered and were presented to the King and Queen and took their seats on the other side of the chess board, facing us.

Let the Game Begin

And then the highlight of the evening, the start of game and out from the lower castle came all the human "chess pieces," complete with the Kings and Queens, the pawns, bishops, knights on real horses and a small tower as the castle, larger than the person carrying it around. They majestically entered and took their places and the game began. The two would-be suitors took their places at a table and "played" the game, while an announcer told the chess pieces where to move, based on that very first game, so it was all choreographed to move fairly quickly, without long periods of waiting for the players to decide what their next move would be. All the drama of the check-mate was felt though, as the white queen put herself in a position to capture the black king, he moved himself to avoid capture, the black bishop took the white queen and the white castle moved in for the kill! Checkmate! Game Over. We know just enough about the moves each piece is allowed to make and the way the game is played, but we are not players, so forgive us if we have not used any of the correct terms for the game! It was just fun.

At the end, all the nobility paraded out, there was more dancing and flag throwing and the night ended with a wonderful fireworks display from the tower of the castle and then, in a dazzling shimmer of white, sparklers streamed down like a waterfall on the face of it. Wow again!

We decided to stop and have a glass of wine and wait for the crowds to disperse a bit before heading for the car. It was fun to watch the passersby, which included some of the participants, still in their costumes, some talking on their cell phones, while somewhere in the distance, at one of the bars nearby, the sound of the Beach Boys, "Ba-ba-ba, ba-bar-bar-ann" could be heard playing softly. Kind of surreal, also as we watched a young woman on a donkey, accompanied by two young men in costume as they turned a corner in front of the bar.

It was nearly 2am when we arrived home. It was a night we'll never forget. Here's the website, if you are interested. They do this on the second weekend in September on even numbered years. We think it's really worth seeing and just a lot of fun. What a great way to settle a dispute, don't you think? We wish our own leaders were so wise.

It's a beautiful day today. The sun is shining; there are wispy clouds in a blue, sky. It's cool and delightful. Summer, I believe, is over. The days are still warm, but the mornings and evenings delightfully cool and comfortable. Last night Laura and Giorgio invited us to their house for dinner and afterwards we went together to a local sagra, a festival. I'll tell you about that and about the other places we've been to this week in another post. So stick around.

Rosemary e Robert

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