One of my favourite places in Verona is in a little street near the Duomo, called Via San Giacomo alla Pigna. From here, in one of the city’s best-preserved medieval quarters, you can gain access to a little church porch belonging to a former Romanesque church, which is now deconsecrated.
In my humble opinion, there is nowhere else that captures Verona’s past quite like it. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) it is a hidden gem because the metal door that enters onto the street is usually closed and you can only imagine what it conceals behind it, by peering through the grill.
This hidden treasure in the heart of Verona is, however, accessible to all during Tocatì, the street games festival that for some ten years has been livening up the beginning of autumn in the city.
There is no other event in Verona that really enables you to experience the city – and in particular its squares, including the hidden ones – in the same way that Tocatì does. It’s not by chance that it has been growing in popularity every year, with tens of thousands of visitors attending.
The philosophy of this festival, whose name is derived from a regional expression that means “It’s your turn”, is very simple yet highly original. We are now living in a time in which much of our lives have become “virtual”, including games, and in which children’s and teenagers best friends are increasingly a computer or mobile phone screen. Instead, Tocatì has focused on traditional games from the past, street games which are now forgotten or practically extinct, but are not without their own charm if you create the right challenge to make them appeal to today’s youngsters.
And the backdrop for that challenge is precisely the historic centre of Verona which, for one long weekend, becomes an “open city” for traditional games. Since this is an international festival, every year a different country or region of the world is invited to host their own traditional games in the city’s squares (the most recent being Mexico, Hungary, Catalonia and China).
Clearly I’m a fan of traditional Italian games and, in particular, those from Verona, the most famous of which is “s-cianco” (which is commonly called “lippa” in Italian). It is a very ancient game dating back more than 4,000 years. The general idea is: with a bat, the batter launches a little rounded wooden peg, placed on the ground, into the air and then attempts to hit it as far as they can with the bat. Once the peg has landed, or by catching it mid-air, the opposing team of fielders must attempt to throw the peg back, aiming to make it land within a well-defined area, so as to eliminate the batter from the game.
There are dozens of games like this on offer, which adults seem to enjoy as much as the children. The Associazione Giochi Antichi di Verona (Verona Association of Traditional Games), which is run entirely by volunteers, has catalogued these with an almost philological rigour because Tocatì is now the focal point of an in-depth research project that involves both universities and schools.
But Tocatì is not just about games, it also provides an opportunity to experience a city in a unique way, rather than just visiting its most famous tourist sites. And the little square in Via San Giacomo alla Pigna, where the Osteria del Gioco (Games Tavern) is set up during Tocatì, is not the only place you can discover.
Another corner of the city that is transformed during Tocatì is Lungadige San Giorgio. From this pedestrian walkway along the Adige river, between the Ponte Garibaldi and Ponte Pietra bridges, you can enjoy perhaps the city’s most beautiful view, against the backdrop of the San Pietro hills. It’s generally a tranquil place, favoured by local runners and dog walkers but during Tocatì you may stumble upon a large street food festival, where you can sample the regional dishes and snacks on offer.
And now, “it’s your turn” because in essence the philosophy of Tocatì is that “play forms the basis of knowledge, culture, sharing and discovery”. A lesson that will endure far beyond a four-day street festival!