July is a great month for Pistoia: there’s the Pistoia Blues Festival, which takes place every year in the first week of the month, plus lots of events such as the Archaeological Nights and journeys to discover the Apennines. On top of this there’s also an event that is all about tradition: the Joust of the Bear, held on July 25 every year.
The Giostra dell’Orso (Joust of the Bear) is held in the central piazza Duomo of Pistoia and is a modern twist on the ancient, traditional palio race that has been held here since the middle of the twelfth century.
The name of the event is quite new; it has been called Giostra dell'Orso since 1947 but the origins are lost in the mists of time. The bear (in Italian “orso”) is the heraldic animal of Pistoia and the Giostra is the high point of the Luglio Pistoiese, the best month in town.
On July 25 Pistoia also celebrates its patron saint, St. Jacob, so you can imagine how religion is intertwined with folklore.
The Joust of the Bear starts at 9.30am, when people from each district gather from the gates of their part of town (Porta al Borgo, Porta Carratica, Porta Lucchese and Porta S. Marco) to go to Piazza del Duomo. 10am is when the parade of the districts and the citizens’ committee get under way, which departs from Piazza del Duomo and head for the city walls. At 11am Mass is held in the cathedral in honour of Saint Jacob. The last thing to happen in the morning is that lots are drawn for the knights: they are matched for each tournament. The draw takes place in the Sala Maggiore in Palazzo degli Anziani, in the presence of the Mayor of Pistoia.
The actual joust, with the reenactment of the medieval jousting tournament, takes place in the evening. At 7.30pm the four districts go to the headquarters of the district that won the year before and go altogether to Piazza del Duomo, where they arrive at 8.15pm. At 9pm it’s time for the parade: this is a procession of the horses and knights that will compete in the tournament. The Bishop of Pistoia gives them his solemn blessing. At 9.30pm the Joust of the Bear begins. The “bear” is actually a target shaped like a bear that knights have to hit on horseback. The goal of the knights is to hit two stylized bears with their lances. At the end of the tournament, the Palio will be delivered to the winner.
Anyway, if you’re not able to be in Pistoia on July 25, you can visit the town on July 22 and 23, when the knights will be practicing for the joust in Piazza del Duomo at 9.30pm. On July 24, at 10.30 pm, there will be a series of fireworks in Campo di Volo.
An interesting fact: the name “palio” takes its name from the “pallio”, a large piece of crimson velvet fabric that is 24 arms long, which was the prestigious prize for the race’s competitors. The palio was decorated with gold and silver, so it was really precious.
The city of Pistoia is really crowded on this day. I suggest you arrive early in the day (it will be easier to find a parking spot for your car) or come by train: Pistoia train station is on the Florence-Viareggio railway line. You could also come by bus, but always check nighttime availability: the last train/bus might be earlier than you think.
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