On my third day in Noepoli, my hosts invite me to accompany them to Terranova di Pollino for an event known as the Festa della Pita. It’s an ancient local tradition in which a tall (15 meters or so) tree is cut down and stripped of its branches. Two other trees are “married” by tying them to the top of it (in this case, a pine, and a local yellow flower). The stripped tree trunk is raised in the town square, and, well, men try to climb it. Prizes at stake include a live veal, a rooster, and a cheese.
“Do you get carsick?” my hosts ask me, telling me that I’d better sit up front if I do. The switch-backing half-hour ride to the neighboring village-between-mountains turns out not to be for the faint of stomach. I am reeling a bit when we finally dock… er, park.
Compared to Noepoli, Terranova is pretty bustling. People have driven from other villages for the festa, but aside from that, Terranova’s on another scale. Walking through, we pass restaurants, bars, and even a couple small hotels. This is an area that sees ski tourists in the winter. There aren’t tourists here today, though. As we make our way uphill to the square, I get the same curious looks I get in Noepoli: apparently my ¼ Italian isn’t enough to blend in.
The tree in question is lying flat on the ground, but shortly after we arrive, the hoisting begins. It’s done by physics and muscle—men lift the tree, and slide some wooden ladders forward underneath it. This is done in spurts. Off to the sides, other men are holding ropes for stability. Some of the men hoisting the tree are young and fit. Others are not. One man is directing the operation. This mainly involves shouting instructions to some of the other men, and a lot of pointing.
“Pasquale! Mario!” Pointing. Avid gesturing. “Leonardo!” Increased pointing.
A maroon-jacketed band (we passed their bus parked lower in the village) keeps up a steady stream of tree-hoisting music. “It’s not like an American marching band,” my hostess remarks. She refers to the lack of precise drill-style marching, but there are other distinctions as well. This band, for example, is passing around a bottle of rosé between songs. They appear to be enjoying the festa immensely.
“Padre!” they call, to the man in the collar who looks like Hollywood’s version of an Italian small-town priest (the lady-charming kind), offering him some wine. A trombone player is relieving himself in a corner by the church wall. The band remains in good spirits as they repeat a few of the same songs over and over. Tree-hoisting, it turns out, takes a while.
There’s one song in which a verse is played, and then most of the musicians put down their horns and sing with great enthusiasm, before playing the chorus again. I ask what the song is about, and someone tells me: “an affair.” It has quite a lot of verses.
I am introduced to a man who makes his own bagpipes. He drifts over and begins playing with a folk-type band. They have a wonderful sound, and all of the players (a couple are quite young) continually swap instruments. After around forty-five minutes the tree is finally upright, and I’m excited to see some climbing–but wait. There’s a second tree? A slightly smaller tree is hoisted for the children to climb. This, thankfully, goes a bit quicker than the first.
It seems that everyone who grew up in one of these small towns knows each other, and my hostess is frequently getting kissed on the cheeks by people who recognize her. She introduces me to Giuseppe, who’s around my age, and then a few minutes later, she’s gone. Around this time the first kids begin to climb the mini-tree.
The hilarious part about the kids’ climb is that basically they strap on a rock-climbing harness, and then the muscular guy holding the end of the rope will haul them up until they get nervous. It’s pretty cute, and I’d like to comment about this to Giuseppe, but we don’t have a lot of common vocabulary. Just when it’s getting awkward, a friend of his wanders over and—wait a minute—starts speaking to us in British-accented English.
Against all probability, I have found a native English-speaker. “What are you doing here?” he asks me incredulously. I ask him the same. He settled in Terranova a year ago with his Italian wife. It’s his second festa. My speech starts coming at my normal pace, and I finally have someone to ask all my questions.
There are only two guys who ever make it to the top, he tells me, and they’ll climb last. And later, when the climbing is over and the wine (he must just mean more wine) starts coming out—“Respect the wine.” Last year he didn’t respect it, and he learned. It’s a local brew, he tells me, and strong enough to knock you flat. I mention this to my host later on, who confirms it, telling me that normally, only men are even supposed to drink this stuff.
I am on hand to witness a huge upset in pita climbing: the very first young man to take on the adult tree makes it all the way to the top. (The adults also wear a harness, but no one is helping them climb.) At the top he wraps his legs around the tree and leans back, celebrating, throwing a few branches from the pine down to the crowd. He gets a lot of applause.
My host family needs to get back to Noepoli and we don’t linger until the wee hours of the festa. I had expected it to be interesting, but I had a ton of fun. The tradition of the pita is ancient—someone tells me it originally had some pagan significance, and then was somehow linked (as so many things were in one way or another) to a church festival… but today, not a lot of villages still stage it. I won’t forget having seen it done—and I hope that somewhere in Pollino, some young men are enjoying together a veal, a rooster, and a cheese.
I found on youtube this great video of the 2012 festa in Terranova, and it really captures the spirit of the event (including the process of getting the tree to the town, and the music of the folk band). I’m pretty sure the homebrew makes several prominent appearances.