There is more to Pisa than its leaning tower and its easy travel connection to the UK. There are some really nice parts of the historic centre and the sweep of the river through the town is pretty spectacular. Also, through June each year there are a series of public parades and spectacles. Passing through Pisa airport on our way to the coast we saw the posters promoting “Il Gioco del Ponte” – the game of the bridge – held on the last Saturday of June and we decided to go.
Born hundreds of years ago, probably as a contest to promote fighting skills, the game was originally a violent contest between opponents armed with clubs and shields but gradually changed into a version of a tug of war – though in actuality a push of war. A huge metal cart runs on rails across one of the main bridges over the Arno river and two teams attempt to push against each other to move the cart to the opponents’ side of the bridge. There are twelve teams, one for each “contrada” or traditional district of the city. They, in turn, represent either the Mezzogiorno (south of the river) or Tramontana (north).
Before the contest the teams and their supporters parade around town dressed in sixteenth century Spanish military costumes – don’t ask, I have no idea…the Spanish never occupied Tuscany, which was an independent Duchy in the sixteenth century. It is quite a spectacle: flags, horsemen, men at arms and very large men who will do the pushing.
The route progresses down one side of the river before crossing over and heading down the other side to complete a circuit. In the central portion on each bank of the river, stands are erected on the street and you can buy a ticket to view from there for 10 Euros. Alternatively you can simply stand amongst crowds on the streets and jostle for a view. I would recommend the stands. As well as giving a good view they place you amongst a partisan crowd of supporters with links to a particular contrada who chant and cheer and blow trumpets and wave flags: we found ourselves amongst the Calci (which turns out to be a little place 9km from Pisa itself) .
It is a real family night out with kids running around, grandmas there to support, folk snacking and everyone having a very social time of it. And it really is full of locals – this is no spectacle put on just for the tourists – I heard no other foreign voices than ours, though there must have been some there.
In the past tickets have been sold online but this year they were only available in person at odd times ending with the morning of the event. I did notice a few tickets sold “on the gate”. Next year, who knows?
Take your seats from around 6 in the evening and the parade starts at around 7:00. It is followed by various ceremonies on the bridge and at around 10:00 the contest begins in earnest, lasting an hour or more – certainly more if, after six bouts, the score is tied. Then, contestants previously designated from amongst the teams join in a tie-break contest. This final bout between the largest and strongest can last twenty minutes and not much seems to be happening. Two groups stand back to back and strain against each other but unless you are in the closest stands you are too far away to see…and then, suddenly, one gives way and is pushed off the bridge, followed by cries and cheers and celebrations and groans of dismay.
Like any sporting contest most people then rush for the door; though being Italy there is lots of talking and hanging around too. If you drove into town, there is a 24 hour, multi storey underground car park by the station.
By Brian Finch
Planning a trip to Pisa?
We recommend this map:
And this guide book focuses on history and architecture and has a great section on Pisa and its province.