Mercantia is an international festival of street theatre held in the middle of July each year in the medieval town of Certaldo Alto, in the Chianti region of Tuscany.
We were staying at Villa 3 Colli in Santa Maria a Bagnano which is only a short distance away from Certaldo. We really love this area and have been coming back each summer for the last three years, but we had never visited the Mercantia before. This year, together with some friends we decided to go and see what was on offer. I can honestly say that we had a wonderful time there and were amazed by the quality of the entertainers and the magical atmosphere there. I give this festival 10 out of 10 and I recommend that you put it high up your list of places to visit if you are going to Tuscany in July.
First and foremost, we loved the backdrop of the festival because Certaldo Alto is a small medieval town which has been fully restored and in my opinion you will not find a similar setting anywhere else in Tuscany, not even in Siena or San Gimignano. Certaldo Alto has many courtyards, open air areas and a castle. Each of these areas was used by a group of street entertainers, so you could walk along the town and at every corner you could see a different performance.
This year's festival in 2011 was held from 13 to 17 July and the event programme started at about 9.00 in the evening and went on till about 2.00 in the morning.
You can go to Certaldo by either car or train. If you are driving from Siena or Florence, take the Raccordo Siena-Firenze and exit at Tavarnelle. Follow the signs for Barberino Val d'Elsa and from there the signs for Certaldo. I recommend that when you are past the outskirts of Certaldo, you park the car and walk in because it is very difficult to find a parking place in the town itself and you might get caught in the chaos of a typically Italian traffic jam. If you are coming by train, there are direct connections from Siena, Empoli and Florence.
You can buy your entry ticket in the main square of Certaldo. Ticket prices for the 2011 event were 10-12 Euros for weekdays and 18 Euros for Saturday. You could also buy a ticket for 30 Euros which would give you access for multiple days except for Saturday. Given the number of entertainers that you can watch and the setting of Certaldo Alto, these prices were incredibly cheap. Once you have your ticket you can go up to Certaldo Alto either using the funicular (but there is a long queue) or walk up a fairly steep hill. We decided on the second option and I am glad that we did so because by walking up the hill we developed a sense of the strategic importance of this town and how attacking Florentine soldiers must have felt trying to battle their way up this hill.
As soon as you go past the entrance at the top of the hill, we were faced with imposing medieval buildings, lots of stalls where artists and artisans sold a variety of uniquely designed and unusual craft items, the sound of music from the street bands and the pleasant aromas of Tuscan street food wafting in the air.
There were so many entertainers and programmes that you simply could not see all of them even if you tried to quickly move from one to the next one. On our programme we counted more than 40 events for just one evening. If you really want to see all the events, then it is worth buying the multi-day ticket.
The shows that we particularly liked included:
Zastava Orkestar, a band of musicians and dancers who worked their way up and down the main thoroughfare
Alarc'h , a duo with a harp singing celtic ballads in the Pozzino
Teatri 35, 3 artists who mimed some of the paintings of Caravaggio in Piazzetta degli Alberelli
Fekat Circus , an Ethopian acrobatic band in Palazzo Stiozzi Ridolfi
Vertiges, a band of girls dancing on the vertical wall of the tower of Certaldo
Amarins & le Gatte Negre, a folk-pop group from Amsterdam in Piazzetta degli Alberelli
There were quite a few places where you could pick up a quick snack and a drink as well as a few restaurants. We stopped to eat at an open air restaurant on the main terrace of the town overlooking the valley below. An amazing setting with the full moon lighting up the countryside below. The food was organised by Certaldo town council and was very reasonable priced. I had sausages with beans, a traditional Tuscan peasant dish, which was incredibly tasty.
Overall, we had a wonderful time at the Mercantiaand will certainly return for next year's event. If you are visiting Tuscany, I can highly recommend the Mercantia if you are there during mid-July or otherwise a visit to Certaldo Alto at any time during the year.