By Cindy-Lou Dale
“What in God’s name are you wearing?” my friend asks. “Me! Look at you! You look a right idiot.” So there we stand in our
respective costumes, surveying our splendour in my hallway mirror. Serena is dressed up as Po, the red Teletubby (UK kids TV show) and I’m Kermit the Frog. “We could become a thing,” I said. “It might catch on.”
February is the Carnival month in Italy. This is when every city becomes a colorful sea of masks, confetti, and lights. It’s acelebration of ancient origins that has become a country-wide cultural events, combining tradition and fun, and creating unique shows.
Offida (province of Ascoli Piceno), is one of Italy’s top twenty most beautiful destination villages who, once a year, becomes a cult destination for Carnival lovers. And the reason for this is because of the inclusive atmosphere, the myths and ancient rituals. But above all, it’s the adrenaline-charged desire to have fun.
It’s impossible to feel like a tourist
One of the highlights of the Offida Carnival traditional is the symbolic bullfight (Lu Bov Fint, meaning fake bull) on 9 February. It dates to religious feasts of the ancient past, celebrating the New Year and the beginning of spring.
The fake bull is an oblong wood and iron frame covered with white and red cloth, adorned with an angry looking bovine head complete with a massive set of horns. The bull is carried on the shoulders of young men who run through the streets of Offida’s historic town centre, with chasing crowds coming up the rear, and other spectators hanging out of their windows cheering on the masses.
2024 marks Offida’s 500th Carnival Anniversary. Historically speaking, these guys know how to throw a party.
Running the Bull
From under the frame, two very fit men blindly run the bull, whilst another two guide it from the outside. This is a much-lauded role and has men apply for the honorary position years in advance. Leading up to the day, the runners train hard for the task ahead. In fact, it’s so taxing on the mind, body, and senses, there are several back-up teams to take over and give the lead runners some respite.
From the top of the hill, and through Offida’s cobbled streets and narrow alleys, you can hear the echoing chants of the crowd. Thousands of people participate in this event (wearing the guazzarò or the typical bullfighter costume) chasing after the panicked bull, taunting it, poking at it, and shoving it along in the direction of Piazza del Popolo.
The chaos caused by the bull’s sudden changes in direction, and the screams of the crowd generate moments of panic, which are generally resolved with hilarity and red wine, which is consumed in copious amounts. Once on the Piazza, the crowd disperse, creating a clearing for the lengthy and dramatic bullfight.
This is also the location of the bull’s demise, and before its symbolic slaughter, its horns are made to touch a column of the Town Hall. The final act of this celebration is a procession carrying the dead bull through the streets of Offida, whilst the crowd sing what has now become the Carnival anthem “Addio Ninetta Addio”.
Let’s Burn them Reeds.
On Shrove Tuesday, 13 February, it’s the turn of the ‘Vlurd’ procession. A dusk parade of ‘farmers’ clad in white robes, who slowly parade, in single file, through the streets of Offida, bearing massive burning spindles of tall reeds. As night descends the long procession of burning reeds take on the look of a flaming red serpent.
Later, much later, several hundred farmers deposit their blazing bundles into the centre of Piazza del Popolo, which creates an enormous bonfire, symbolising the start of Lent and the end of the Carnival. Screams and songs fuse with swirls of grey smoke and plumes of brilliant gold sparks as the pagan fire lights up the square.
For everyone, the traditional costume is the guazzarò – a white cloth garment edged in red (the colours of Carnival). It’s a close relation of the tunic that men and women once wore whilst working in the fields. It was also originally adopted during the traditional procession of li vlurd, so as not to get dirty while carrying the burning and partly charred bundles on their arms.
Over time this garment has been reworked and has become the traditional uniform of carnival celebrations. But on this final day of the Carnival everything goes as everyone in Offida tries out-dresses and out-crazy the next – masks, wigs, painted faces, bizarre costumes. Most worn simultaneously.
Then there’s the great masquerade ‘Veglionissimi’ after party at the Serpente Aureo Theatre.
But around these events, whose origins are connected to 16th century peasants, there is much more. Costumed balls in the red velvet setting of the Serpente Aureo theatre, masked parades, food and wine banquets and, most of all, the long preparation period that begins on 13 January, and following exacting events that demands perfect timing which all relies on the extraordinary organisational machine of the covens – historical masked groups, linked by kinship, and formed to embolden and bond traditions.
Each coven has its own organisation, a uniform, a banner, and a distinctive form of participation in the Carnival. They are the true leaders of the carnival festivities, the creative people who tirelessly produce music, dancing and other types of entertainment in the squares and at traditional gatherings. The real celebration begins when, on Shrove Tuesday, 13 February, the mayor of the Marche village hands them the key to the city.
No Formalities or Divisions
At the Offida Carnival, it is difficult to feel like a tourist; here the Carnival is not a party to be attended, but a collective and somewhat frenzied ritual in which everyone,
Offidans, and visitors alike, must partake in. It is an authentic interpretation of the free and inclusive spirit of the Carnival which, for just a few days, forgets formalities and divisions.
However, it may take some time for the good folk of Offida to forget about the antics of Kermit the Frog and his sidekick, Po, the red Teletubby.
Offida Tourism: https://www.turismoffida.com/en/index.html