stilts and flag

Black Magic in Certaldo

Lisa Perkovic explores her dark side in the hills of Tuscany

Once a year hidden high in the Tuscan hills, the streets of Certaldo are given over to the dark side. Under cover of darkness thousands of people converge on the cobblestoned roads to revel in Mercantia, the annual International Festival of Street Theatre. For the past 23 years, the festival has been a big event for trolls, tricksters and grim reapers. We’ve managed to stumble across a world without wholesomeness but it’s all in good fun.


Each night as the sun goes down high above the city walls the mayhem begins. A funicular ferries crowds to the town’s peak. When we step off the carriage a trumpet sounds and it’s a call to arms. Jazz players get the buzz going, literally pulling people onto the street to start dancing. The main road is one moving mass of characters; capes, witches hats, ball gowns, corsets, there’s no uniform but the energy moves through us until we’re all in rhythm.

There are stalls selling everything from human-sized gnome hats to stuffed toys shaped like skeletons. I pass ghoulish creatures assembled in a very creepy Cabbage Patch doll collection and resist picking up a silver Cinderella pumpkin carriage pendant. I really wish I’d bought that now.

It’s unlikely I’ll see anything, or anyone, like this ever again. Street theatre has a strong history in Italy and here the best, worst and most whimsical is on show. The festival’s website, when very roughly translated, seems to be a Manifesto of sorts. It describes the fourth dimension as ‘the space of our experiment, a theatre for magic.’ And that’s certainly what’s happening.

At one point high cackle cuts the air as a demon on stilts lunges past, his minions cracking their whips to clear the way. We turn one corner to find classical music and around the next stumble into a wedding ceremony for a bride and groom on stilts, dressed in drag.

Along the back wall of the city food stalls are set up for alfresco market style dining. Sangria is doled out from giant urns, huge hocks of pig rolled out from smoking sheds and vats of homemade paella are going cheap. We grab a few plates of prosciutto and risotto and settle onto the ancient wall to watch the moving acts ramble by.stilts and flag

The festival runs every night for a week but you’d need as long to see each act and that’s without visiting the artisans. Clay makers slick back wet slop from a goblin’s head and alabaster carvers chip at giant slabs, strange shapes just starting to emerge from the grey stone.

Local specialties are on show too. A man sits in front of a basket heaped with black truffles, his elbows resting on locked boxes just in case you want to bulk buy some of his black gold. Sloppy gelato served from big metal drums drips off revellers’ chins but they’re careful to keep the mess away from the fungi.

During the day sunlight casts a rosy glow on Certaldo. With all the charm of neighbouring San Gimignano, it’s got that Tuscan touch without the tourist prices. During Mercantia exploring the town is about people watching. At witching hour, when the kids have been sent to bed, the party really begins. Fuelled by sangria and the electric energy of the night, the crowd surges towards the clock tower. Jazz bands station themselves along the route, jamming, jumping and hitting high notes while herding everyone along. We dance our way to the highest point of the town, the clock tower looming overhead. I can’t hear a word of the bawdy performance on the stage but the reactions around me are enough. Peering past pointed hats, around men in suits on stilts, the best theatre in the world is all around me.

The Mercantia Festival takes place in Summer every year.

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