The Ivrea Carnival must surely be one of the most colourful, messy, unruly and downright enjoyable carnivals in the whole of Italy. What a claim! However, it is one that can be backed up by the facts. Where else could you enjoy a four day battle with oranges, whilst pretending to attack Italians dressed as Frenchmen. Well, you can in Ivrea.
Ivrea, for the large part of the year, is a quiet little town of only about 25,000 people, in the Turin province of Piedmont. But, every year at Carnival, the place goes berserk.
As in most Italian towns and cities, carnival goes back a long way, and varying stories compete as to how and why certain traditions were established. In Ivrea, for example, there are two distinct threads to the tradition. At the beginning of the 19th century, this part of northern Italy was under Napoleonic control and so many of today’s carnival elements parody this time. The red, dangly nightcaps of the time; the Napoleonic General; the fights between the oppressed masses on foot and the ‘masters’ on the wagons – all these are evident today.
But then there’s also the local legend of the local Duke who was allowed to spend the night with any newly married woman he chose. One mugnaia, miller’s daughter, refused to carry out his wishes and chopped his head off. Now, each year, one of the locals is elected mugnaia and the thrown oranges represent the duke’s head.
After one or two preliminary ceremonies, the carnival ‘proper’ begins in earnest on ‘Fat Thursday’, the week before Shrove Tuesday. This is when the power of the city is officially handed over to ‘The General’, who oversees the events that are to follow. On the Saturday the miller’s daughter will be presented from the Town Hall balcony, followed by a procession and a firework display. And the first of the Orange Battles. Until the Tuesday afternoon, there will be one gigantic battle every day.
Basically, there appear to be nine separate teams, on foot, who have specified battle positions and attack the procession. For example, The Chessmen group – there were 16 in the first team; the number of pawns – assemble in the Piazza Ottinetti and hurl their oranges from there. Obviously the people on the wagons propel their own oranges back. Now, visitors are allowed to enlist in the teams, although spectators are not ‘permitted’ to throw oranges. They have been known to ‘retaliate’ when caught by a stray missile, though. There are supposed to be ‘safe’ spectator zones, to enable you just to mock other people getting ‘oranged’ but it’s best not to rely on them being totally secure. All in all, it is a time of complete chaotic mayhem. And everybody loves it.
One of the more ridiculous aspects of the whole affair is that they don’t even grow the oranges in the fields around Ivrea; most of them are imported from Sicily!
On the Monday of Carnival there will be bands and groups performing in the streets at night, and on Mardi Gras itself it all finishes with a giant bonfire of wagons in the town centre and then a fairly solemn ‘funeral’, with the general closing the festivities until the next year. On Ash Wednesday everybody reconvenes in the now orange-covered square to partake in the traditional cod and polenta – and regale each other with stories of their gallantry, no doubt.
Ivrea is easily reached by train on the line from Turin to Aosta and it’s also very close to the main A5 road connecting the two cities. Turin airport is 40 kilometres away and there are good rail connections between there and the town.
There are several hotels in the town itself, and even some ‘Bed and Breakfast’ places. For the past few years, the council have provided excellent facilities for those with camper vans, only 500 metres from the carnival areas. If you like the idea of helping throw a quarter of a million kilograms of oranges during February’s Carnival time, then check out the Ivrea Carnival website for more information.