Posted by: viewfromtheriva | August 9, 2010

Sinj’s 295th Alka, keeping a glorious tradition alive

Without a ticket, getting a seat at the Alka is impossible; but you can stand at the end of the course and see the riders gallop

We were really lucky to get a pair of tickets to this year’s Sinj Alka, the 295th consecutive year of celebrating a glorious event in the city’s past.

In 1715 Sinj and other parts of Croatia were under constant attack from the Ottoman Empire.  Some 60,000 Turkish troops descended on the city during the first week of August that year and the town could only muster 500 of its own citizens and 100 Venetians.

Exhausted and riddled with dysentery, the coup de gras for the invaders was a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary during these nights that caused some to mysteriously die and many more to fleemaking it possible for the rest to be defeated by the heroic locals.

The pasha, the Turkish leader, disguised himself as a local and was never seen again.

To celebrate this seminal event, the Alka is held every August on the first Sunday before the Assumption of Mary as part of a three-day festival. The alka itself is the name given to a small metal ornament that was used by the Turkish army to decorate a rider’s stirrup.  A circle with three spokes, its center hole diameter is less than 2″.

Each year, 17-19 Alka riders (each rider must have been born in Sinj or cannot compete) are chosen to take part in a contest of horsemanship and skill.

Wearing authentic period costumes and plumed fur hats and riding fabulous horses dressed in gorgeous regalia, the Alka riders parade before the crowd before getting ready for the contest.

Before the Alka begins, local citizens wearing authentic military costumes from the period (complete with two pistols and a knife worn around the waist tucked into a cloth, parade in front of the crowd

Each rider carries a 6 foot long lance.  The goal is to try to “catch”  the alka by putting the tip of the lance through the exact center hole (3 points!;  if you catch the alka through the spokes, you get one or two points).

Some of the riders parading past the crowd in their finery

One of the main streets in Sinj is completely covered with dirt to create a long narrow raceway so the riders can gallop.  The crowd, numbering 10,000 or more, lines both sides, sitting on simple wooden benches cheering on their favorites.

Suspended over the center of the raceway at its halfway point is the alka. If a rider manages to get his lance through the exact center hole of the alka, a cannon on the tow’s fort is fire, the band plays and the crowd claps in unison.

The horses and the riders are wear the same authentic regalia

There are three heats and each heat takes about 45 minutes.  This year the event ended with two riders having an identical score of 7 points so there was an exciting extra heat.  The first rider got two points for catching the alka in the spoke just above the center hole and won.

Traditionally, he is given a ceremonial sword, a gold ring and and a silver ring, 10,000kn (about $2,000) and is expected to share his victory by feeding the entire city who is invited to his house!

10,000 or more people at someone’s house?!  What makes this possible, and is another fascinating part of this celebration, is that all the riders prepare to be the winner.  So all the losers (all are winners in the eyes of the citizens who live in Sinj) bring their preparations to the winners house to create the grand feast .

After each heat, the riders canter past the crowd and then resume their places at the start to wait their turn to try again

What really impressed me about the Alka is the profound respect that the organizers, onlookers and visitors have for this ancient commemoration.  Sure, some enterprising local sells popcor, soda and beer to the crowd, but the speeches, the ritual of calling the riders, the sheer dignity of the event is palpable.  And it could be so easily Disney-ed, I was grateful to be part of something so sincere.

The President of Croatia (behind the woman in blue) and the Prime Minister (In the blue dress) leave the reviewing stand after the Alka

And it’s no coincidence that both the President of Croatia and the Prime Minister were in attendance along with other officials to show just how much they recognize the significance of the Alka.

After the event, we strolled through the city and then were taken to the Konoba Ispod Ure for a traditional after-Alka dinner of frogs and river crabs!  They were delicious and so was the great wine.

And to end a wonderful day in Croatia, a fireworks display!

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