Every year on January 17th and January 31st the town of Pontremoli in Lunigiana hosts a bonfire competition which actually re-enacts an old medieval rivalry. The Disfida dei Falò, the Bonfire Challenge, is held in the dry riverbeds of Pontremoli and sees the town split in two for the most blazing, tallest and long-lasting bonfire.
The two factions represent the two patron saints of Pontremoli, San Niccolò, whose feast is on January 17th, and San Geminiano, celebrated on the 31st. Once a pagan ritual held at the beginning of the year to invoke the “god of fire” against the long cold winter months, the bonfires were later adopted to celebrate the Catholic patrons. Furthermore, during the early fourteenth century there was a huge antagonism between the factions of the Guelfi and the Ghibellini which brought to the building of the great bell tower to separate the two rival camps.
Today both parishes pacifically commemorate these events with gigantic piles of wood, whose flames can even reach a height of 30 metres. The San Niccolò group lights its bonfire on the 17th on the dry side of the Magra river, whilst the San Geminiano clan builds theirs on the 31st next to the river Verde. Fundamental is height and how long they burn, but also how well they hold together during the celebration.
One of Lunigiana’s most distinctive towns, Pontremoli combines tradition with Tuscany’s most historical territory, a mountainous region covered with forests and with one of the highest concentrations of castles in Italy.