40 huge, sweating men are panting with the strain; some are pulling faces like demonic gargoyles due to the searing pain in their bulging thigh muscles. For these men – these two teams of twenty – to win is to taste glory; to lose is to have ruined a good pair of shoes. This is the momentus Gioco del Ponte, the Game of the Bridge.
I owe Pisa an apology.
I – and I suspect most other tourists in Europe – am guilty of making the trek out to Pisa’s iconic tower, getting there only to be vaguely disappointed, and then turning right around for the next train back to Florence.
So I’m very grateful this week that circumstances have thrown me back in Pisa’s direction because I’ve much maligned this little city that orbits in Florence’s vastly longer shadow.
As it turns out Pisa has a great deal to offer if you step off the too-well trodden path between the train station and the Piazza del Duomo. It also helps to know what time of the year to go as well.
June is the biggest month in Pisa’s calendar as they organise festivities to celebrate their patron saint, San Ranieri. It was described to me as their own private New Year’s, a renewal of the city for the coming year and a commemoration of its long and proud history.
The pinnacle event of this schedule – the result of which will determine the mood across the entire city for the whole of the next year – is the Gioco del Ponte, a 500-year-old tradition that divides Pisa right down the middle.
Even today Pisa is a city of two halves. North of the river lies the Tramontana, Italian for Sunset; South of the river lies the Mezzogiorno, the word for ‘Midday’.
Historically the two sides would regularly antagonise and fight with the other. This tendency was heightened during the time of the Medici, when Pisa had been conquered by Florence who then disbanded their army, leaving a great deal of Pisan men with wayward energies.
The Gioco del Ponte, or Game of the Bridge, evolved to focus this errant animosity on an event that would pit one side of against the other in a battle of strength and strategy. The winner took the glory and the loser focused their energies on winning the following year.
Today this cross river rivalry is considerably more agreeable but the Game of the Bridge continues to draw crowds cheering their individual teams. The event is unique in combining the pomp and ceremony of a century-old historical procession with the roar, flares and passion of a sporting final.
As the afternoon fades Pisa turns out in costume. Drummers, flag-bearers, escorts, and the teams themselves parade the streets in sumptuous regalia, evoking Pisa’s medieval past. The Judges arrive on horseback, while each team’s General leads their army in full armour, followed by soldiers bearing arms, the sunset glistening off their polished breastplates. Over 700 people participate in the procession.
Once night has fallen The Game can begin in earnest – Tramontana vs Mezzogiorno. Each side of the river sports six teams, one for each of its six districts. Each of the six battles will see one team from each side face-off across a giant metal contraption set on rails along the length of the bridge.
The winning side is the first to win the majority of the six battles (or, as we would be lucky enough to see, a three-all tie-break broken by a final seventh round)
Imagine a sleek Viking rowing boat with its oars fixed out horizontally and you’ll have some idea of the hulking metal ‘cart’ that each team will endeavour to push to the opposing team’s side of the bridge.
The teams mount the stage to the roar and cheers of their fans and the first thing you notice is their shoes – a mix of Nikes and Adidas completely at odds with their medieval costume. Yet these shoes are as special as they are ungainly. Like reverse high-heels, they are have been chocked to be higher at the toe and lower at the heel.
As the teams take their places at the ‘cart’ the shoes’ importance becomes apparent as each of the members lean backwards with their shoulders firmly beneath one of the 20 horizontal bars sticking out from the contraption. Such is the force they will need to be applying that they end up slanted backwards at 45 degrees; these homemade reverse-heeled shoes offer them the purchase they require.
Led by a General who coordinates their pushes and watches their opponents for any sign of weakness, the teams push and heave in matches that can last as little as a few seconds or epics that can take 20 minutes of back and forth before their opponent finally caves and the ‘cart’ is pushed back into their territory.
And all this is presided over by the Judges, who look like they’ve just leapt from the pages of The Three Musketeers.
This year the underdog South of the River took the fight to their rivals, pushing their opponents into a three-all tie-breaker that saw the biggest and the best from each team return to the cart for a final sudden death round. But after a fierce fight Tramontana were victorious for a second year running. The North side of the river lit up with parties and revelry and a muteness set over the South as its people faded into the medieval streets.
The Gioco del Ponte is dramatic, fuelled by passionate crowds that keep the emotions high with streamers, confetti cannons and the occasional firework. To add to the fun of watching this unique competitive sport, the whole event is couched in a proud history that the Pisans lovingly evoke. And best of all it remains off the tourist radar, which is a rare thing in modern Europe.
Pisa is far more than just a wonky tower and witnessing the Gioco del Ponte is the most fun was to get to know the people, the place and history.
What: The Gioco del Ponte
When: Held on either the last Saturday or Sunday of June
Where: Pisa, Italy
How Much: Tickets for the stands are recommended. They can generally be purchased in the week leading up to The Game from the Atrium of the Town Hall (Palazzo Gambacorti). Unless sold out they can also be purchased during the day of the event. Tickets cost €10
Why: Historical re-enactment, World Cup final and Sumo Wrestling all rolled into one. The world’s biggest Push-of-War