The Bonfires of Pontremoli

photo by Andrew Hind
photo by Andrew Hind

An ancient tradition continues to burn bright (IT)

by Andrew Hind

There’s nothing more entrancing than the dancing flames of a crackling fire on a cold winter night. And no place does it better than the Tuscan village of Pontremoli. Every year, two parishes within the community – St. Nicolo and St. Geminiano (the town’s patron) – compete to build the biggest bonfire in celebration of the medieval rivalry between the aristocratic Guelphs and Ghibellines. Pontremoli, a small town of 7,000 residents, is nestled within the comfortable folds of a forested valley and surrounded by the rugged Apennine Mountains. It derives its name –“trembling bridge” – from the Italian words ponte (bridge) and tremere (to tremble). It’s the kind of community where history seems tangible.

by Francesco Bola

“Pontremoli is the heart of Lunigiana – very rich in history, culture and traditions,” notes historian, tour guide and guidebook author Francesco Bola. In the Middle Ages, it was a place of strategic and commercial importance and was known as the “only key and door of Tuscany” as it stood at the gateway to the Apennines. Because of its prosperity, aristocratic families spent centuries fighting for control of the town. “We don’t know when the falò tradition began, but it was probably during the Middle Ages,” explains Bola. “The earliest documents we have are from the 16th century. They describe the Fallodia, bonfires lit to celebrate holy days and used as a sign of joy. Falò probably began much earlier, as a pagan celebration at the coldest time of the year, and continued into the Middle Ages to entertain the local community and to celebrate particular holidays.”

The tradition, a wonderful throwback to another era, continues unabated to this day. As early as September, young men and boys of the rival parishes gather to collect dry material, such as branches and undergrowth, to fuel the bonfires. Participants spend almost as much time trying to sabotage the efforts of their rivals, so the firewood is stored in secret locations to dry out.

Every year on January 17 the parish of St. Nicolo lights its fire on the riverbed of the Magra River, followed by the parish of St. Geminiano on January 31 along the banks of the Verde. The towering pyres illuminate the night sky in a jaw-dropping spectacle.

by Francesco Bola

Each bonfire is built on a wooden frame up to 13-metres high and takes up to 18 hours to build. Construction is entirely by hand, with 30 men working in shifts in the cold January weather. Real skill is involved, as there must be sufficient ventilation to allow the innermost wood to burn steadily. Once the fire is lit, members of the parish guard it at all times to prevent good-natured sabotage.

The entire town and many tourists come to watch the huge burning fires. Both events start a 7 p.m. and are preceded by fireworks. The friendly competition is decided by audience approval and tradition has it that the winning parish will be the one responsible for bringing abundant harvests and riches to Pontremoli in the coming year.

Stay

Napoleon Hotel: A small three-star hotel with 30 rooms ideally situated in the centre of town. It’s an excellent choice if you want to leave your car and explore the city and the surrounding countryside on foot. The restaurant serves a mix of classic Italian dishes and local specialties.

Dine

Osteria oca Bianca: This cozy restaurant offers great food at prices that won’t break the bank. The restaurant only opens for lunch during the week but serves both lunch and dinner on weekends. Menu highlights include stuffed ravioli and roast cooked in a terracotta pot.

Visit

Castello del Piagnaro: Overlooking Pontremoli from atop a hill, this is one of the largest castles in the region and offers a stunning view of the town. Inside is the Museum of Stele, housing late-Neolithic sandstone sculptures called Stele, which are common to the area (www.statuestele.org).

Cathedral of Saint Maria Assunta: Built in the 17th century, the beautiful church boasts a neoclassical marble-lined facade and copper-covered dome.