Regatta of St Ranieri: tips for watching Pisa's boat race

Arno River. Pisa. Italy. 'Arno / Pisa' by baswalletCreative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike

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Location: Palazzo Medici, Pisa, Italy

Date: 17 June

Level of participation: 1 - gasp at the paliotto scramble

Venice may be famous for its gondolas, but across the country, Pisa stages this 1500m dash up the River Arno, a tradition dating to the 1290s. The four narrow rowboats, differently coloured to represent the city’s four districts, each contain a steersman, a climber, and eight oarsmen struggling against the current.

The finishing line is a boat anchored at Palazzo Medici, a location decided in 1737 upon the request of the Duke of Montelimar, who was staying in one of the palaces there. The climbers must scale one of four cables to the top of the boat’s 10m mast and grab a paliotto (triangular silk banner). The blue banner indicates first place, white is second and red is third. The winners receive an animal such as an ox or a rooster; the losers are awarded with a pair of goslings and torrents of abuse from onlookers.

The regatta originally celebrated Assumption and moved to St Ranieri’s feast day in 1718. On the eve of the high-speed celebration of the city’s patron saint, Luminara is an altogether more sombre event. Some 70,000 candles in glass holders are arranged along the bridges, palaces and churches overlooking the river, their flickering reflections broken only by candles bobbing on the water.

Local attractions: Pisa is famous for its 12th-century Leaning Tower, which was recently straightened by 45cm to save it from collapse.

More info: tourist office (+39 050 56 04 64)

See other top festivals in June here.

This is an excerpt from Lonely Planet's A Year of Festivals.

This article was first published in December 2010 and was refreshed in April 2013.