Ivrea's Battle of the Oranges.
© Gio-S.P.O.T.S
Travel

The Battle of the Oranges is the most fun you can have with citrus fruit

For three days of the year, the quiet town of Ivrea hosts Italy's biggest food fight.
By James Shackell
5 min readPublished on
The ancient Roman town of Ivrea is like every other town in northern Italy. Tourists come and take pictures of the castle (built in 1357). Locals cheer on their football club, A.C.D Montalto Ivrea. Old Italian men do old Italian men things, like nap and play draughts.
But for three days every February, Ivrea’s quiet, hardworking people gather into nine tribes, don helmets and body armour, and hurl fruit at one another with extreme aggression. For these three days, a festival known as ‘The Battle Of The Oranges’ engulfs the city.
Welcome to Italy’s largest food fight. Here is what one completely normal regular participant has to say about it:
What's it like to throw oranges at total strangers?
What's it like to throw oranges at total strangers?
Now, inevitably, The Battle Of The Oranges is going to draw comparisons with the Superbowl of European fruit-throwing: Buñol’s La Tomatina. This is the Spanish festival you see on the cover of every European Contiki brochure: a take-no-prisoners tomato fight that generally rages for about an hour. In fact La Tomatina has become so popular that it had to be ticketed in 2013 (a lucrative little earner for the burghers of Buñol). It’s generally considered dangerous, hardcore and about as much fun as you can have with fruit.
Well we’re here to tell you: The Battle Of The Oranges makes La Tomatina look like a Grade 6 cafeteria skirmish.
For one thing, you have to consider the weight, density and rind-thickness of the average Sicilian orange (oranges actually don’t grow anywhere near Ivrea – they have to import them every year from Sicily). A standard tomato weighs about 62g. An orange? More like 140g. It’s basically Mother Nature’s cricket ball: a heavy, compact sphere of fructose, surrounded by a leathery shell, with a terminal throwing velocity of around 130kph.
Is the Battle of the Oranges dangerous?
Is the Battle of the Oranges dangerous?
And The Battle Of The Oranges doesn’t last for a single fruit-splattered hour. It runs for three days straight. City cleaners materialise at night to sweep away the day’s pithy debris, but there’s no way they can keep up. Over 256,000kg of oranges are hurled each year, and by Shrove Tuesday the remains are ankle deep. Horses’ hooves and stamping feet and cart wheels crush the oranges into a sort of fructose slurry. The streets are paved in pulp. So much citric acid is released in the explosion that it actually cleans the stonework. After a week, Ivrea’s cobblestones gleam like rubies.
So how did Italy’s biggest food fight begin? The origins are a little murky – our favourite kind.
Legend goes that the city’s tyrant (it wasn’t unusual to be governed by a tyrant in medieval times) attempted to rape a young commoner, a miller’s daughter, on the eve of her wedding. The miller’s daughter responded by decapitating the tyrant, thus sparking a huge (and very successful) Ivrean rebellion that swept through the city.
The Battle Of The Oranges has therefore become an annual symbol of freedom, liberty and other slogans you tend to put on flags. Every year a woman from the town is chosen to play the Mugnaia (the miller’s daughter), and a man is chosen to play The General (the leader of the rebellion). From what we can gather, this is a bit like the nominations for Moomba King and Queen, only with more dignity and fewer commercial opportunities.
The aftermath.
The aftermath.
The citizens of Ivrea, known as Aranceri, gather into nine teams, grouped by geographical district. They have virile, no-nonsense names like Aranceri della Morte (People of Death), Aranceri Pantera Nera (The Black Panthers) and Aranceri Scorpioni d'Arduino (Arduino’s Scorpions). One slightly less intimidating tribe is known as Aranceri degli Scacchi, which translates loosely to ‘Team Chess’. Each team has its own symbol, which is plastered on flags, banners and every available masonry surface. Team Chess, god love ‘em, have chosen an orange rook.
When the festival begins, your team’s job is basically to defend its territory against the metaphorical ‘soldiers of the tyrant’. In this case, the soldiers are other Ivreans, riding around in horse-drawn chariots, pelting you and your family with large oranges. You respond by throwing oranges back as hard as you bloody well can. And so on and so on, oranges whizzing through the air like stinger missiles, mashing into unprotected necks and groins and faces.
City officials examine the chariots and the horses as they roll from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, presumably to maintain equine welfare. But you can’t help but think there isn’t much in it for the horses, apart from glazed orange terror and the eventual reward of a carrot.
Spectators are allowed at The Battle Of The Oranges. No-one’s forced to compete. And there are a couple of ways you can do it. You can watch the battle from behind large plastic nets, draped from the surrounding buildings, which is a good choice if you’re elderly or infirm or suffer from an acute orange phobia.
Ivrea's Battle of the Oranges is complete and utter chaos.
Ivrea's Battle of the Oranges is complete and utter chaos.
Another option is to simply stand on the battlefield, amid the citric carnage, and watch in situ. As you can imagine, this probably isn’t the smartest move. All spectators wear a red cap called the ‘Berretto Frigio’, which basically means ‘No Throwsies’. You’re off-limits to orange hurling.
But that doesn’t rule out friendly fire, and when several hundred thousand oranges are being hurled in complicated vectors all around you, an errant ‘pulping’ is pretty hard to avoid. Black eyes and split lips are not uncommon. After all, the Berretto Frigio is really just a bit of red cloth, and probably offers about the same amount of protection as a linen handkerchief would on a stroll through the Battle Of The Somme.
While it looks like complete chaos, there are certain rules to The Battle Of The Oranges. Judges observe the contest, and a winning team is scored on its attitude during the fight, its sense of fair play (how the judges judge this is anyone’s guess) and its civic decorating efforts (go Team Chess!). There’s even a mysterious points system. And the grand prize for three days of relentless orange-hurling? Pride. Bloody, pulp-splattered Italian pride.
As they say in Ivrea: “Che il festival continui!”
May the festival continue.
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