Offbeat sporting passions run high in Italy's Valle d'Aosta, where fighting cows are serious contenders.
© Donald Strachan
Up in Italy's highlands they still know how to make their own fun. Last night's local sports bulletin featuring fiolet, rebatta and tzan hinted at a taste for the bizarre. Not for Valdostans a convenience–sport diet of Monday night football or cricket on the green.
But then the people of the Valle d'Aosta are a parochial bunch: these 120,000 mountain–dwellers secured an autonomy agreement and live under their own government. Stop in for a bite and you'll clock some very un–Italian dishes on the menu—does your local trattoria serve Fontina cheese and cabbage soup? Their "international airport" provides pilots with one of the most dangerous landings in Europe. Only skiers or hikers usually visit; and they mostly fly into Turin.
To dismiss Valdostans as "Germans," as a Sardinian friend does all northern Italians, isn't that far wide of the mark here. There's still a corner of the valley where they keep Germanic Walser traditions and language going. Mussolini, paranoid about the questionable Italianness of his favorite ski resort, Breuil, even had its name changed—to Cervinia.
In the Shadow of Mont Blanc
We are waiting in the village of La Salle, in a natural grass amphitheater that hangs like a balcony over the upper valley. Below us is the town of Morgex and the icy blue–green Dora Baltea River forging its path to the Po, and eventually the Adriatic. On the horizon above Courmayeur, the spiky granite wall of the Grandes Jorasses and their sister peak, Mont Blanc, must have dwarfed even Hannibal's elephants and Napoleon's artillery as they passed this spot on their way to a place in history.
I can only describe today's event as a cow–fighting contest—grandly titled Batailles de Reines, Battles of the Queens. But that's not nearly colorful enough. Throughout the afternoon, a hoary announcer calls cows into the arena to fight in pairs. Each of the 185 entrants must be of local piebald Valdostana stock and is marked with a white number painted onto her gargantuan rump (I would hate to meet the bull willing to take any of these babes on). Confusingly, for me anyway, he's not talking in Italian. Like everything else in the Aosta valley, the local dialect is a mixture of French and the national tongue.
"Huitanta," he calls, for number eighty. To fight "trenta–du," thirty–two. Each cow's handler leads his animal into the arena, where it marks its patch and prepares to fend off the usurper.
"They are all incinta, of course," Mario says. My friend Mario has decided to be our unofficial guide to the battles.
"Incinta? " Pregnant? It's not a word I've had much use for.
"Of course, otherwise they wouldn't fight," Mario explains.
Let Battle Commence
When the cows are brought together, they instinctively face off over grazing rights. They scrape the turf, bay and snort. Eventually with a crash of craniums and locking of horns the battle begins. Some end quickly: the first cow to turn away is deemed the loser. Occasionally one lasts five minutes or more, neither cow prepared to give ground, and we're captivated.
Just to make spectating even more confusing, there are three or four battles going on in the arena at once. The official cameraman dodges and weaves, taking care not to knock the Armani sunglasses from his coiffed head. I hope he's being well paid.
© Valle D'Aosta Tourism
Often battles spill over into each other: a bolting, bucking cow careers into a locked pair, a fleeing Queen collides with the puny crash barriers that are the only thing keeping a two–headed, four–horned tonne–and–a–half of snarling beef from the thousand of us watching. On one occasion the losing cow feels she hasn't had a fair hearing and continues her vendetta with the victor among the scattering crowd.
The Real Aosta Valley
If you're thinking the Batailles are some tipico show put on for the tourists, some overblown Alpine Palio, you'd be wrong. Accents and voices are predominantly local—Valdostans take the events very seriously. From March each year, Batailles de Reines qualifiers in three weight divisions take place in twenty comunes of the Valle d'Aosta. After a short spring "grazing break", they continue almost weekly until the final, which takes place in Aosta's vaccodromo ("cow–o–drome," I kid you not) each October.
Videos of previous years' competitions are on sale in the hypermarket; Aosta's newspaper devotes double–page spreads of earnest prose to every qualifier. The association, the Amis des Batailles de Reines, has a 64–member general assembly and a 39–article constitution that for eloquence and precision would put the EU and UN to shame. Last year Italy's right–wing nationalist Lega Nord tried to get politics involved by sponsoring an entrant—to a mixed reception.
These bovine gladiators even star in a genuine Valdostan epic poem—"La bataille di vatse a Vertozan"—written in 1889 by Jean–Baptiste Cerlogne.
Un bà dzor de jeuillet, lo dzor de la Revenna,
De Veulla dze m'en parto a l'arba di matin…
I won't regale you with all twelve stanzas, but take it from me it's considered a literary classic in the local dialect. It's also confirmation that these battles had been going on here well before the first "official" battle in 1924. Probably since just about anything at all has been going on here, in fact. The Batailles remain an authentic expression of Valdostan patrimony.
And witnessing them is a thrilling, visceral spectating experience. Like football in the park, you hear every crash and crunch turned up to 11. The cacophony of cowbells bounces off the mountains and creates an atmosphere that drags us along in its wake. Today's winner, a 720–kilo giant called Suisse, along with eleven others qualify for the autumn final.
How different it all is from the preening savagery of the Spanish bullfight. These Queens are treated like royalty at home, not to prepare them for a bloody "noble death," but to make them champions and bring pride to their owner and village.
It is, Mario proclaims, "proprio bello, proprio naturale," and he's right. Not even a vegetarian could object.
Dedicated to the memory of Mario Lanza. I miss him.
For details on upcoming Batailles, check the dedicated Batailles page on the Valle d'Aosta's tourism website.
Donald Strachan's next book, Florence and Tuscany Day–by–Day, is out in June. See www.donaldstrachan.com for more on his writing.
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