Italy is my favourite European country

Since the 16thcentury a very particular competition has taken place between Italian towns.

It’s the Palio of the Balestra (Crossbow)

For the past 50 years an additional event has taken place the parade of the Sbandieratori, (flag teams), alongside this in Gubbio Italy. 

The competition took place on Sunday 26thMay between Gubbio and neighbouring Sansepolcro.

It involves 90 bolts being fired by two teams at a single target at the opposite end of the Piazza, is held in front of the magnificent Palazzo dei Consoli with its ‘great bell’.

The shooter, some of whom are gloriously dressed in Medieval outfits, takes aim with one eye open, via a ‘sight’ on the top of the crossbow.

As the number of arrows in the target increases, so the level of difficulty also increases.

No bolts are removed, except by another shot. Sometimes a shot results in displacement of a large number of bolts which are already embedded in the target. 

Once the 90 shots are completed the target is carefully removed from the wall and shown around the audience. It looks like some sort of huge hedgehog with a large number of bolts embedded in the centre.

The officials take the target away and cautiously remove all the bolts, to determine which is the winner.

Drums and trumpets then announce the Sbandieratori from the steps of the palazzo. 

The participants are young and middle-aged men, but a cluster of very small boys on the steps of the palazzo capture my attention, looking extraordinarily cute in their gorgeous Medieval costumes

First the flag teams run in a circle run around the square holding their flags aloft.

Then a series of choreographed moves are made which involved the flags soaring into the air 

Aimed with so much skill, the flags are caught, sometimes by someone across the far side of the square, or over the shoulder without looking backwards – we hold our breath in anticipation.

Of particular note is the young man who performs the equivalent of a game of ‘keepy-uppy’ with three flags, the most technically difficult element of the show.

Finally, a series of Sbandieratori are assembled, prone on the ground as each one jumps clear of their team-mates’ bodies. At the last jump it seems impossible that the jumper can possibly clear the bodies lined up under him. 

Luckily he does.

Meanwhile, the judges of the crossbow competition – each wearing of a type of chain mail ‘shrug’ – work out the winner.

The Great Bell is rung to announce the winner, and the announcement is made in reverse order.

Honours are split between the towns with 3rdplace for Gubbio and second for Sansepolcro. The overall winner is a man from Gubbio who had never before taken part in the competition – a memorable finale.

Returning to the twenty first century has seemed odd and a little colourless.

So I’m definitely getting a chain mail shrug!