Joust for Fun

Arizona Renaissance Festival 2019 Photo by Marian Buechert.

Years ago, I stumbled across something online called the Renaissance Festival Podcast. This was in the very early days of podcasts and I had never heard of them. How cool to have a whole bunch of music in a genre you liked instantly accessible! While I was already very keen on folk music of all types, the podcasts were my introduction to “Ren Faire” music, which is a mix of serious, beautifully performed ballads and tunes along with a lot of rollicking, frequently bawdy, sometimes downright dirty songs.

The podcasts were also my first window into the quirky world of Renaissance festivals. I was astonished to discover that there are over fifty regular Ren events across North America and more in Europe and Australia. Ye innocents, take heed: this is happening all around you—your neighbours and co-workers are dressing up in corsets and codpieces and congregating in places where they can kowtow to a monarch, drink mead, and shout “huzzah!” for knights and clowns alike. My kind of people.

Hence, I was excited when I found that the Arizona Renaissance Festival would be happening while we were down south, and not too far from Phoenix, one of our stopovers.

The Arizona festival has 32 years under its belt and it shows: this is no fly-by-night, two-days-per-year event. They run every weekend in February and March and they have a permanent site, complete with buildings, streets, 14 stages, and, most impressively, a jousting stadium. It’s extremely well organized, from food to entertainment, and things seem to run like clockwork. If you bring even a modicum of willingness, you will be jollied, cajoled, and nudged into having a good time, as the cast rouses up the audience at every performance to “ooooo!” when something dangerous is attempted, “ahhhhhhh!” when it succeeds, and applaud at every possible opportunity. Spectators at the jousts are expected to take sides and cheer “their” knights while booing the opposing team.

You may see a gaggle of Harry Potter characters sporting robes and wands and Star Wars stormtroopers in white armour, all rubbing shoulders with the Queen of England in full Elizabethan glory. Historically accurate, it ain’t, but the time-tested joy of “dressing up” carries the day. One could even argue that, when you get right down to it, what we’re really doing is finding different ways of portraying archetypes. Fantasy people get that Darth Vader is just a tech-savvy Black Knight, and that the Wise Mentor can choose to put on his Merlin, Gandalf, or Dumbledore robes at will.

The rides at the faire are simple, old-fashioned, and entirely human-powered, usually some variation on being swung, twirled, rocked, or bounced. I don’t know how genuinely medieval these are, but I certainly enjoyed the sight of small children perched in wooden dragons, screaming in excitement while a couple of burly guys in peasant shirts worked the cranks to make them “fly.”

There are streets full of stores that sell costume clothing, armour, drinking vessels, metalwork, leatherwork, woodwork, blown glass, dragon masks, fairy wings, and anything else your historical/fantastical heart might desire. You can hire the village insulter to recite your own personal insult, written on the spot, or buy a blossom for your lady love from a flowerseller.

The jousting is impressive, featuring knights in shiny metal armour tilting at each other on horseback with ridiculously long wooden lances. Between rounds, the knights parade before their fans (preassigned by seating section) to preen and boast. Colourful pennants stream in the wind, a member of the royal family presides from a high box, and you find yourself wedged between a steampunk pirate on one side and a Dr Who (4th incarnation, of course) on the other. You can even get married at the faire, afterward feasting in medieval style and viewing the joust from a seat of honour.

Onstage, the comedy is broad and often raunchy and the songs are full of double-entendres. Acrobats, fire jugglers, and storytellers pull patrons from the audience to add spontaneity and entertaining awkwardness to their shows, then pass the hat. There is falconry and “live mermaids,” roasted turkey legs for lunch and a bullwhip-cracking adept to watch while eating them.

An excursion into the Renaissance festival world is a day of delight where, with a bit of imagination and a willingness to play, all ages can enjoy themselves—without clicking buttons or staring into a screen.

Heaven for Horse Lovers

It was a sight I will never forget. Thousands of horses and riders packed virtually nose to tail, haunch mere inches from haunch, filling the main street of Costa Rica’s capital city as far as the eye could see.

Warmblood stallions with thick, arched necks, luxuriant braided manes falling over rolling eyes and silver-plated bridles, capered next to placid work ponies with no more than a rope hackamore to guide their measured steps. Riders in brilliant historical costumes sat stiffly erect in their saddles, knees expertly communicating with their mounts, while bosomy girls in cowboy hats and shirts tied tightly in front to show off their curves waved to the crowd from floats sponsored by beer companies.

On December 26 of each year, the Gran Tope Nacional takes over not only San Jose, but the entire country. It is a day for Ticos to embrace a once-a-year, completely over-the-top love affair with the horse.

Researching travel destinations is my passion and sometimes I discover something unexpected. We were planning a trip to Costa Rica and had little interest in San Jose; our goal was the parks and wildlife farther afield. As I idly browsed a hotel website, however, a phrase caught my eye: “Located close to the route of the Gran Tope.” Although I had already done a lot of reading on CR, I had never heard of the Tope. I began searching the web for more info. At that time, there was very little information available: a couple of Spanish-language sites and one or two news reports. The travel guides never mentioned it, yet it sounded big. At any rate, a day devoted to horses was enough to get me booking a hotel for the date.

On Boxing Day, the Tope commands day-long national television coverage. This is the Superbowl, the Oscars. There’s a pre-Tope show with multiple celebrity hosts and there’s moment-by-moment on-the-ground coverage of the four-hour parade, with interviews, comedic episodes, and lots of shots of pretty women with cleavage. Happy spectators push up against the barriers, some sucking on beer bottles, other on baby bottles. Loud music blares, people shout, a drone zooms overhead.

In the face of this chaos, the horses are amazingly calm. As the parade stops and starts, stops and starts again, they wait patiently as they are jostled by other steeds or fondled by strangers’ hands that stretch out over the barriers to stroke silken rumps and noses. When the tiniest space opens up, a rider is sure to have his mount dance across it with fancy steps, inviting admiration. If a child beckons from the sidelines or a lovely lady is spotted, the most mettlesome stallion is brought to the barrier to be petted and praised and accepts it with equine dignity.

I see small children pulled from the crowd by riders who swing the young ones up behind for a taste of what it feels like to be King Cowboy. I am embraced by half-drunken celebrants who are intent on nothing more than having a fun day and think being photographed with a gringa tourist is a lark. I point a camera at the parade, and riders stop before me and pose with obvious pride.

As far as I could tell, there is no competition, no prizes, no winners or losers. Just an outpouring of affection and appreciation for the horse. Imagine that: an event that’s all about participation.

For the rest of the trip, when locals inquired politely as to what I had done in Costa Rica, their faces would light up when I mentioned the Tope. It was as if I was now a member of a secret club because I had sought out and experienced this event dear to the Tico heart. “What did you think of it?” everyone asked eagerly, and they would beam when I said in all sincerity, “I’ve never seen anything like it!”