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ANYONE who believes that food-throwing is exclusively a pastime for upper-class Englishmen can never have been to Ivrea at carnival time. Every year, for three fruit- spattered days at the beginning of Lent, this otherwise peaceful town at the foot of the Italian Alps becomes a juice-stained battlefield, its air thick with flying fruit.

The oranges begin to arrive a week in advance: overripe blood oranges, 360 tons of them. They come from Sicily by freight train and are distributed among the younger members of the town's 27,000 people. By the time the carnival begins, the young townsfolk have divided into nine teams, each comprising between 100 and 300 orange-throwers and heavily armed with fruit. Dressed in colourful, harlequin-style leotards, they battle away for three successive days, throwing oranges at one another with all their strength until they are exhausted.

The teams have fearsome names like "Panther", "Death" and "Devil", and it is easy to see why. Each team parades 12 of its best warriors in a carriage; everyone else, goaded on by ear-splitting rock music, attacks them (and each other) with unremitting ferocity. The approved technique is to keep one hand held protectively in front of your face, but most people are too intent on throwing with maximum force to pay much attention to defence. The warriors in the carriages wear padded jackets and leather helmets, but the frequency and intensity of direct hits makes it a painful business, and their faces - stained and bruised - betray the battering they have taken.

Six Red Cross medical staff treat up to 180 injured people on each day of the carnival. Eye injuries are the most common. As for treatments, one wounded veteran claims that only one thing helps: "Ice, ice and more ice." Reports that someone lost his sight at a battle a few years ago are, says one of the nurses, "just part of the folklore". None the less, a number of relatively serious cases are usually transported to the municipal hospital each year.

By Ash Wednesday, the first day after the carnival, the town is a street- cleaners' nightmare. Somehow, the mush from more than 1.4 million squashed blood oranges has to be scraped off the streets and walls of the town. Small shovel dredgers are used to clean away the veritable mountains of ruptured citrus fruit. There is little that can be done about the bittersweet fragrance of the juice, which will linger over the city for another month.

If it all seems a little wasteful, a little pointless - well, it is. The traditions of the Ivrea carnival are old, but not that old. The other main feature of the celebrations is the Mugnaia, a young townswoman dressed up to impersonate a miller's daughter, who, according to local legend, once inspired a revolt - re-enacted in the orange battle - against a medieval tyrant. But these elements were introduced to the carnival in the 19th century, especially around the time of the Risorgimento, and the ideals behind the celebrations are lofty bourgeois ones of independence and freedom from political tyranny.

Yet there is also a more timeless aspect to the carnival. Like other European carnivals, it evokes a sense of renewal, of the end of winter, of the sweeping away of the old year and the bringing in of the new, and the general exuberance that it generates is hard to resist. Visitors who do not wish to become involved in the fruit-fighting can buy peculiarly shaped red stocking-caps to identify themselves as non-participants, and groups of red-capped figures can usually be seen wandering warily through the ankle-deep mounds of slippery orange pulp that line every street. But few have the strength of mind to remain red-capped for long. The wild, orgiastic spectacle is simply too tempting, too juicy, and most people sooner or later succumb, abandoning the timid role of spectator, rolling up their sleeves and hurling citrus fruit as though their lives depended on it. !