Navelli is a small medieval town with 9 little frazioni that snuggles into the low Abruzzo mountain plains south of L’Aquila. If you talk to most Italians outside of Abruzzo they’ll know Navelli for its 8 hectares of land that grow the wonderfully pungent high-grade saffron shipped to discerning chefs for inclusion within their Milanese Risottos … However, Navelli has a new found growing fame as host to an alternative Palio; the colourful Palio degli Asini – yep a Donkey Race like no other in the world, and due to the giggles that it promotes, is something that everyone should attend once in their lifetime for a burst of belly laughter like no other.
Navelli’s Palio degli Asini is held at 5 O’clock on the 3rd Sunday of August, the culmination of its Sagre (think all night village harvest festival fete meets party) that celebrates the harvesting of the local delicious petit chickpeas (ceci). The delicate nuttiness of these little beauties is like nothing you buy in a tin from your local supermarket, so make the most of the food stands if you visit or alternatively buy dry chickpeas to take home, you’re helping to support local farmers.
Celebrating the medieval guilds of yore, the local brass band theatrically attired in medieval costumes lead cecetti & cecette (local children named after yes chickpeas) and 6 men in tights & tunics otherwise known as squires or jockeys. They with their lady pages, lead their donkeys down the hill from Piazza Piccoli at the top of the hill to a field that once held a wood of pines before a summer fire wiped them out – this is now the Navelli Il Palio degli Asini racetrack.
The jockeys’ attempt to mount their rides ready for the start whilst some of the more frisky donkeys attempt to apply themselves to something similar… They it seems feel all dressed up with just a racetrack to go to and begin to get just a little amorous with each other. The biting of bottoms and attempted mounting of each other soon takes place with the surrounding humans bursting out into embarrassed hoots about the size of the donkeys schlongs that burst through all their costume – yep it’s a real “what’s that daddy moment”).
Eventually everyone is placed at the start-line and they are off! The aim is 4 times round the track; Squire jockeys attempting to stay on and ride their donkeys whilst their lady pages really do everything and lead those stubborn asses and pull them back into the race when they attempt to canter away from or push and pull to get them going. It is hilarious, free and worth a Sunday afternoon out if you are in Abruzzo in August – all money raised goes to help the local community who were affected by the L’Aquila earthquake with sadly many still unable to live in their homes.
If you are in the area buy: Saffron, Red Sulmona Garlic & of course Chickpeas! Help those outside the Italian culinary tradition get to know about this little town by perhaps requesting these items from your local Italian deli and really taste the difference! If you need persuading further to a diet rich in saffron, this spice is renowned for being an early Viagra with the ability to bring alive erogenous zones hence its former nickname Red Gold not just for economic reasons.