The Disfida dei Falò in Pontremoli is a traditional bonfire competition that has been held every January for centuries. For two nights the town is lit by the glow of the fire while people gets carried away by the enthusiasm of an ancient rivalry.
I must say that bonfires are common in the early days of the year throughout Italy, but those of Pontremoli haven’t much to do with pagan folklore or Christian symbolism. The origin of this celebration is linked to a time when the town was torn by the conflict between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines.
The Guelphs and the Ghibellines were 2 factions, one supporting the Pope, the other supporting the Holy Roman Emperor. Their rivalry has marked the politics of many city-states, especially in central Italy.
In Pontremoli, the fight between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines became so hard that Castruccio Castracani, the Duke of Lucca, were forced to divide the town into two. He built Fortezza Cazzaguerra which separated the Guelph district of San Nicolò from the Ghibelline one of San Geminano.
Today the only remain of the fortress is the central tower, called Campanone, but the rivalry between the districts is still alive and is carried on through the bonfires competition. It’s a goliardic but intense rivalry that makes the Disfida dei Falò a very engaging events for the residents of Pontremoli.
On January 17 they all crowd on the banks of the river Magra to see the bonfire of San Nicolò, and then, on January 31, they do the same on the banks of the river Verde for the bonfire of San Geminiano.
Watching a bonfire in the night is always an evocative experience that recalls times and lifestyles gone by. But the bonfires competition in Pontremoli is something exceptional for two reasons.
First, during the show the residents of the districts are used to sing songs of mockery towards the opponents, and this makes the experience much more fun.
Actually, the rivalry is so pervasive that the construction of bonfires itself is constantly monitored to avoid jokes and raids by the opponents.
Consider that the volunteers start to prepare what they need in September, striving to stack the bundles and hide them around Pontremoli to prevent theft.
For this near the stacks they build shacks where they can supervise while staying warm.
It’s like a war! And ‘soldiers’ have their livery: white and red for San Nicolò, blue and white for San geminiamo.
Secondly, the bonfires of Pontremoli are huge!
Volunteers pile an incredible amount of dried heather and other shrubs around poles that are more or less 13 mt high. They do everything by hand, placing every stick in the right place to ensure flames that can be 30 mt high.
The district which build the bonfire with the highest flames wins!
What is the prize? Well, the satisfaction of having beaten the opponents and the hope for a good year.
Apart from the Disfida dei Falò, I recommend you visit the city of Pontremoli because it is really enchanting.
Pontremoli is one of the most characteristic towns of Lunigiana, in the north of Tuscany. Its medieval atmosphere is able to bring you back in time and the surrounding nature offers wonderful views. This city is indeed surrounded by hills and there are many hiking trails. Culture, art, history and good food are other pluses.
In short, Pontremoli and its bonfire competition combine the beauty of Tuscany with a folklore that is still alive despite the centuries.