The Ferie Della Messi

When a Tuscan vacation goes back in time…way back.

The drive from the Florence airport to San Gimignano is exactly as a drive through Tuscany should be. The roads snake and cut across vineyards and the bell towers of villages dating back to the Etruscans dot the landscape. In the month of July, the vines hang dry and glint like gold in the sun, and the heat undulates across the plains and valleys. Our black Peugeot climbed the few hundred meters above the valley floor and we entered the narrow, ancient gates of San Gimignano, oblivious that the barrier we had just passed through was, in a sense, transporting us back in time.

The Tuscan countryside

Once a year, the hilltop village transforms for a weekend into a Renaissance enclave, complete with jousting matches, flag throwing, and traditional Tuscan food. The Ferie Della Messi celebrates the villages’ rich history of rivalries between the neighborhoods­ contradas­ and crowns one area of the town a winner on Sunday evening, following the Giostra dei Bastoni contest. We arrived in San Gimignano with no idea that this festival was taking place, and as we unloaded the rental car, we heard the beating drums to start what turned out to be two full days of parading and celebrating.

Ferie Della Messi participants

Throughout the weekend, we began to learn the tunes and beats of the different contradas. San Matteo: Bum badda­bum­bum…bum badda­bum bum. Our own neighborhood, Castello, marched to the beat Bad­da­da­bum­bumbum…Bad­da­da­bum­bum­bum. The strikes echoed the ka­thump that the wheels of our car had made over the cobblestones upon entering the walled city. From archery to blacksmithing to flag­-throwing, we saw it all under the burning Tuscan sun. The culmination of the weekend was the Giostra dei Bastoni, or the winner­-takes-­all jousting match between representatives of the neighborhoods. Perched on our haunches under olive trees, we watched mounted knights draped in red, purple, and gold fabric race to knock over a target. As the dust kicked up in our faces from the pounding hooves, it was easy to forget that the heart-­racing sport had been turned harmless, and instead imagine the brave knights competing for the hand of a fair Tuscan maiden.

On the final evening of the festival, we sat at a café on the main square of the village, across the street from the self-proclaimed “world’s best gelato” (the blackberry lavender flavor changed my life). As my plate of prosciutto e melone was set in front of me, three handsome Italians in full Renaissance knight garb sauntered past, one texting on his iPhone. I didn’t even give him a second glance as I dug in, accepting the magic of San Gimignano to seamlessly blend the past and present into one beautiful scene.

The Ferie Della Messi is held every summer in San Gimignano, which is approximately two hours outside of Florence. While there are tour busses to get there from Florence and other major cities, a car rental provides the flexibility to visit the surrounding area, including a number of notable vineyards and unbelievable dining options. This fascinating look into Tuscan Renaissance culture is a travel must­-see for Italian and European enthusiasts and historians alike!

This blog post originally appeared on World of Wanderlust, but a subsequent rebranding of the website warranted the removal of all contributor content.