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SULMONA, Italy (Reuters) - It is time for the butcher to polish up his battle-axe and the schoolmistress to stitch fresh silks on her noblewoman's gown as the hired horseman hones his lance and primes his mount for combat.
Jousting season in Sulmona, and the people of this ancient town, nestled in Italy's central mountains, are making fevered preparations for the biggest festival of their year, when Renaissance pageantry and feasting set the tone for local rivalries fought out in knightly contests on the main square.
The piazza, a natural hippodrome of tall, stone buildings with the high peaks of the Abruzzi soaring up behind, has been laid with hundreds of tonnes of sand and planted with greenery to mark out a track round which 'cavaliere' -- the knights -- will race with lances raised at breakneck speeds.
As important for the Sulmonese is the pageantry surrounding the joust, the Giostra Cavallaresca, which begins on Saturday; months of hard work behind the scenes in sewing elaborate 16th-century costumes and rehearsing bands of trumpeters and drummers finally see the light of day in parades and banquets.
"Hundreds of people, all over the town, have been cooking and sewing and practicing. We're dead tired, been up till 3 in the morning stitching beautiful robes," said pensioner Tilde Carugno, whose routine goes into overdrive for jousting season.
"It's worth it, though. We live the Giostra in our hearts."
Festivities are marked by intense though, mostly, good-humored rivalry among the seven districts into which the town is divided for the Giostra, an event which traces its heritage to the city's mediaeval heyday, was codified in Sulmona in 1583 and resurrected in 1995 to bolster both tourism and civic pride.
Much of Sulmona's 25,000 population turns out to watch.
Summer theatrics are common across Italy's picturesque small towns. Some also stage equestrian events, notably Siena's centuries-old Palio horse race round that city's square. But Sulmona claims a uniqueness for the skill and daring of its jousting, which now attracts television sports audiences.
The medieval combats, where knights sought to knock each other flying, were long gone by the time Renaissance Sulmonese set down their own rules for a test of knightly prowess. Today, the riders, mostly professional jockeys hired by the competing town districts, race apart, though in the same arena.
In each head-to-head contest, two riders set off in opposite directions from the center of a figure-of-eight track. With their lances, they pick off rings hung from manikin knights set around the piazza. Each half-minute contest ends with the pair racing toward each other to the finish line and a final ring.
The winner will have scored more points -- smaller rings count for more -- but speed counts too, deciding the outcome in about half the jousts, where points are even, and contributing to calculations of who contests Sunday's semifinals and final.
Falls, mishaps and controversial umpiring are not uncommon and spectators packing stands around the piazza, hundreds of them in elaborate costume, are guaranteed thrills and drama as local passions flare as rowdily as in any soccer stadium.
The coming week will see a surge in tourism for a place best known to Italians for its 'confetti' -- the sugared almonds ubiquitous at weddings -- and to classical scholars as the home town of the Roman poet Ovid. But for most locals, the main aim is to celebrate community in a town which, like many in Italy, faces uncertain times as ever more local factories close down.
This year sees an expanded program around the Giostra after cutbacks last year that followed the devastation of the provincial capital L'Aquila in a 2009 earthquake. Government austerity plans remain a worry, though, for the organizers.
Before and after each session of jousting, and during the subsequent week of related tournaments and exhibitions bringing in teams from Italy and abroad, squads of people from each of the seven districts will have paraded through Sulmona dressed as nobles, soldiers and pages, accompanied by the waving of flags.
The sound of drums and trumpets echoes for days around town; banners line the narrow, cobbled streets marking off the rival districts; and each night brings neighbors together under the stars for feasting and, for the fortunate on Sunday, celebration round the palio, or banner, awarded to the victorious cavaliere.
The talk this year is of whether 2010 champion Francesco Scattolini, riding for the Porta Bonomini sestiere, or district, can fend off the challenge of the veteran Massimo Conficconi of Porta Filiamabili, who is bidding for a record seventh palio.
For more details, go to www.giostrasulmona.it
Editing by Louise Ireland