‘You want wine?’ a cheeky Italian got in front of my bleary eyed face and shook his leather-skin pouch holding the nectar goodness. I was taken aback actually and had to check my watch again for the time. It was eight thirty in the morning and I only had a drop of espresso to get me through the hour-long drive from my Corte San Pietro hotel in Matera. It was far too early in the morning, I reluctantly surmised. With a shake of my hand to convey no, I walked off with a forlorn look knowing that I should really be clear-headed for the traditional festivities today. I was in the Accettura National Park ready to take part in the oldest Italian folk festival called ‘The Festival of the Marriage of the Trees.‘ I bet you’re intrigued.
So What is the Festival of the Marriage of the Trees?
This is possibly the most important cultural festival in the region of Basilicata that shows off its ancient and pagan roots. The festival is found in plenty of small towns in Basilicata and its purpose is to make sure the soil is truly fertile thus ensuring a large crop of harvest in the seasons to come. So what happens in the festival? A large old Oak tree, to symbolise the ‘groom’, is chopped down and carried for long distances ending up in a town square where it is thus married in a lavish ceremony to a younger Holly tree, symbolising the blushing bride.
Crazy but interesting eh?
My Experience with the Groom
No, this is not as naughty as it sounds. I assure you that the groom got to his bride just fine without any interference from me. As I couldn’t experience the entire festival that takes all day, I got to see an insight into the morning activities that involved the Oak Tree being carried to Accettura…
A joyous shout riffled through the dense canopy of the forest that reached our ears. I alarmingly looked to Neil of Backpacks and Bunkbeds who was still in crouch pose holding my camera to take a rather glamorous picture of me with the Scrubland of the National Park behind me. Only that he was looking towards the direction of the shout.
‘Let’s go,’ muttered Brenna of This Battered Suitcase, snapping us out of our reverie. We had decided to take a breather from climbing up the hill to the Oak tree that was picked out to be the ‘groom’. But it seemed we were too late to see the Oak tree chopped down thanks to the joyous shouting. Any minute now, handpicked carriers would be racing down the hill again with the tree on their shoulders straight to the bottom. Rushing to the main track, we could see a barrel of half-plastered Italian with the tree making a run for it from uphill with a laughing band at its front. This stunning sight of merriment coupled with danger made for it to be a thrilling start for the Festival of the Marriage of the Trees.
Gaping with wonderment, we had to jump aside into the ditches of the main track as the tree barreled its way through us, its leaves and small branches catching us full smack in the face. All I can remember as the tree passed was ‘I can’t believe how they can carry such a heavy tree!’ The Italians must indeed be strong. Following in the wake of the ‘log-flume’ (as I aptly called it) were communities of villages dancing and partying whilst waving small branches with a donut looking pastries attached on the top. Huh? But there was no time to waste and stare. We needed to keep up with the tree! Scrambling up from the ditch, clutching my camera, I ran with gusto and found myself caught up in the infectious enthusiasm of the festival.
I could see the end of the tree bobbing in front as I pushed past fellow revellers. Only that I discovered the grave mistake of running too fast downhill whilst poising a camera on my face. I couldn’t stop! I didn’t scream, I didn’t get scared nor did I cry. I just laughed. I looked to my left and noticed a German photographer was in the same predicament. Soon, I was outpacing the tree carriers and what did I do? Ran smack into the back of the tree. Okay, maybe I did interfere with the groom.
Spitting out a mouthful of leaves, the German photographer passed me by with a dirty look on her face. She was in the best position to take the winning shot and I was determined to beat her at her own game. So, onwards I ran after the tree that continued to move again amid the joyous singing. Running alongside her, I could see THE shot in front of me, I raised my camera to my eyes and before I knew it, I was sprawled on the dirty track looking I was doing the splits. I couldn’t believe it, the German photographer actually pushed me! I looked down at my knee, all bloodied and scraped, and appreciated my thanks to the merry Italians who picked me up.
Before I knew it, they were already down at the bottom of the hill for a well-earned break on this wonderfully hot day. Actually, it was just another excuse to have more wine. But this time, I cracked and sampled the diluted red wine poured over my head into my gaping mouth. Maybe I shouldn’t have worn a white t-shirt that day seeing as all the locals had scruffy and old t-shirts on!
We watched as the base of the Oak tree was duly hacked to pieces. I wasn’t sure what this symbolised but it was fun to see young men scrabbling with each other for a chance to show off their bulging biceps and wield an axe.
A basket was thrust under me smelling of donut looking savory treats. I uttered my thanks as I picked one up and bit into it. It didn’t taste very nice. But as I was about to discreetly discard it, an old Italian lady smacked my arm and pointed up at the carious branches other people were holding. I realised. An array of donuts were simply hung on the tree for some bizarre reason . I nodded my thanks to the woman and hung mine, albeit with a bite mark, on a branch and looked over back at the old Italian lady. She nodded sagely and before disappearing into the crowd, she gave me a nip on the bum. That was one sure way to blush!
But the festival isn’t over. The Oak tree has to be carried 15 kilometres to Acceturra, where the marriage ceremony will take place…
A Taste of the Italian Community
Grabbing a few bottles of Peroni, sold off the back of someone’s car, the tree was picked up and again and the arduous journey through the National Park began in the searing midday heat. It was a pleasant affair, stopping only in the shade that could be found to cool down.
Soon, I figured we must have arrived at the halfway point as the tree was set down and everyone headed into the woods for lunch! Tradition truly came out in force while I scoffed my face with delicious hams and cheeses, cherries and oranges and homemade bread. But I was extremely touched when all the families and groups surrounding us offered to share their food, as custom, to us whether they were salted fishes, pasta and more importantly, wine! They were happy to have us ‘tourists’ here seeing an insight into their old folk festivals that’s never revealed to the rest of the world. I think it should stay like that. Keep it secret. Always be a tradition. After all, we don’t want commercial sponsors arriving and setting up a music stage and charge entry. We don’t want Rihanna singing ‘We found love in a hopeless place’ while the tree ambles by.
My thoughts were confirmed when the old accordion was brought out. Everyone hushed quietly. It was time to listen to traditional Italian songs.
Our lunch finished and so was our time with the Festival of the Marriage of the Trees. It’s a day long event and we simply didn’t have the time to see it all. I wish I could have seen the legendary and raucous partying at the end. But really, we needed to ‘fly.’ Wondering what’s that about? That’s another post for you…
Disclaimer: My trip to Basilicata was organized by Basilicata Tourism as part of their #HelloBasilicata blogger campaign. All content, thoughts and opinions on RexyEdventures are always my own.
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