The thundering sound of hoofs pounding down the main street of Sinj was a cultural experience we enjoyed a few weeks ago. An afternoon made me feel proud to be raising a Croatian and a little jealous that he can never qualify to be an Alkar Knight.
In 1715, the town of Sinj, located in the southern inland part of Dalmatia, Croatia, was under attack by 10,000 strong Ottoman Army. Wanting to occupy Sinj, the Ottomans had reached the edge of town and were close to taking ownership. The battle for Sinj was brutal; with just 1,500 defenders, the local priests of Sinj prayed to the Almighty for the town to be saved.
Local legend has it that the town of Sinj was granted a miracle when the home forces were victorious. The town was saved. Now, whether they achieved this feat on their own merits, by divine intervention, or some combination of the two is a subject that remains up for debate for anyone other than the people of Sinj.
The people of Sinj believe that a woman in white was seen walking on the walls of Sinj. The legend of Sinj is that this woman was Madonna. Appearing after hearing the town’s prayers, forcing the Ottomans to withdraw. The town of Sinj declared to host an annual festival in the Virgin Mary’s honor to show their gratitude for her assistance; the Sinjska Alka.
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What Is The Sinjska Alka?
Taking place each year on the 1st weekend of August, the historical Sinjska Alka event was inscribed on the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List in 2010.
Essentially it’s an equestrian competition, where a device called the Alka is suspended 3.34metres on a rope above the main street. The Alka is a large iron circle that has a smaller iron circle held at its center by three strips of metal. Riders strive to hit the Alka directly through the center circle of 33mm with their iron-tipped wooden lance of only 32mm in diameter as they gallop, full speed down the main street.
This medieval-style jousting competition starts with a parade through town with all of the individuals mentioned above and a marching band. The tap-tap-tap of the drums can be heard from one end of the town to the other. There is something about a marching band; the coordination of the group walking rhythmically together with the hair-raising sounds of the instruments gets me every time.
The marching band, together with a police escort, leads the way for the Knights of the Alka. The people of Sinj are silent and proud, watching as the parade makes its way toward the stadium.
Though similar equestrian tournaments took place in many coastal Croatian towns in years gone by, the Sinjiska Alka is the last remaining competition of its type that is still being held in modern times. Participants, known as Alkars or Knights, are selected from within the local community. A child of Sinj joins the local ‘Alka Club’ and trains for many years to learn the skills required to one day be an Alkar. It’s a great honor to be selected.
Each year the top 11 to 17 Alkars are named to participate. Dressed in traditional and elaborate 18th-century clothing, tall hats & boots, the Alkars are sat on top of most grand-looking horses. The Alkar Knights mount the horse at one end of the track, with hundreds of people sitting in the grandstands on either side and hundreds more assembling at the end.
At the start of the race, the crowd waits in anticipation for the Alkar and his horse to gallop past. The Knight and his horse begin slowly at first and then proceed into a full gallop rather quickly. The pair must race along the 160-meter track to reach the Alka in less than 13 seconds to qualify for the attempt to secure the Alka.
With his lance down, entirely focused, the rules state that the Alkar Knight must also be sure not to lose his hat or any part of his attire as he barrels from one end of the track to the other.
My heart skipped a beat each time the Alka zoomed past us; I wanted him to secure the 3 points awarded for collecting the center ring. Although we had fantastic seats in the grandstand, I could not see the Alka as it was collected – although you don’t need to see what’s happening because the crowd bursts into cheering and applause any time an Alka scores a 3.
The announcer will call our ‘u sridu’ (in the middle), and shots are fired in celebration of the jousters’ success.
Rules Of The Sinjska Alka
The outfits worn vary based on the rank and position of the Alkar. However, he must keep every item of clothing, including his hat, on during the event. If his hat tumbles off during the event, it’s the judge’s decision if he can attempt to collect the Alka again.
The entire tournament is presided over by a rider decked out in gold who is granted the honorary title of Duke. Other noteworthy participants include the shield and mace-bearers and the grooms responsible for the Duke’s second horse. This animal’s accouterments are said to belong to a Turkish duke from the time of the siege. I find that astonishing!
The Alkars are kept under the command of a troop leader, as are their squires. In keeping with tradition, the squires are responsible for the care of their Knight’ lance and horse. The hairy-faced squires bear arms. With weapons tucked into their richly decorated waistbands, I kept looking as they marched, waiting for one to fall out. It never did. They must have some kind of secret tucking method.
Rules for this annual event were finalized in the 1830s, and the scoring system is based on what portion of the main ring is hit by the lance. On each attempt, contestants can receive from 0-3 points. Each gentleman gets several attempts before the tallies are counted, and the prizes and honor of winning such a special event are awarded.
Our friendly and beneficial guide Jelana told us that only male riders are eligible to join the riding club. They do so at around the age of 9-10, and if they persist, show talent, and other qualities, they can join the procession around the age of 20. Several years later, they are allowed to compete in the Sinjska Alka event.
Want to try to become an Alkar? You can, only if you or your father were born in Sinj. Gosh dang it, my Baby Donkey can never be one of the regal-looking men. Training for the selection of the Knights begins each May, and by the beginning of July, the Duke (vojvoda) announces the selected participants.
The oldest known video footage of the Sinjska Alka is from 1931
The Sinjska Alka Attire
The entire community is involved in the tournament preparations. Caring for the clothes, weapons, and other paraphernalia is a task for many hands. In the past, the preservation of these items was chiefly in the participant’s hands, but now the Alka Knight’s Society does the lion’s share of the conservation work. The weapons that are utilized for this event generally date back to the 1800 and 1900s, though there are a few Turkish sabers from earlier historical periods that are also used.
Although their riders make an impressive display on their own, the horses being used for the tournament are likewise outfitted with special ribbons, tassels, and silver ornaments of historical significance. Various types of horses have been used in the competition, but Arabian horses and English thoroughbreds are the most popular steeds for the event.
On the day we attended the horses were a little jittery, with one throwing off his Knight and another who kept stomping his feet during the opening ceremony.
There are several youth competitions held in other parts of the city, but one I’d love to see is the Vučković Children’s Alka. In late August, the little tykes prepare to become an Alkar Knight in the real tournament one day.
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A Family Festival
Music and a feast of roasting pork fit for a king mark this annual celebration. The town is filled with street vendors selling all kinds of sugary treats and fried goods, along with coffee bars packed with a mix of locals and tourists. Coupled with street performers and small stands where you can purchase hand-made local crafts, the Sinjiska Alka is an excellent day for the whole family.
So, even if you could not score yourself one of the elusive grandstand tickets, head into town, watch the event on the big-screen TV, and enjoy the vibe of the city-wide block party.
The Town Of Sinj
Can’t make it to the Sinjska Alka festival? No worries, the town of now 12,000 residents offers loads of other festivities which you can choose from, and you can even explore on a custom-made tour. Sinj was once a more popular destination in Dalmatia, that is until the motorway which connects Zagreb to Split was built. Now, the town see’s considerably fewer visitors. While bad for local tourism, it’s excellent for you, meaning more chance to find a seat at the coffee bar and a cheaper room.
And you can still visit the Church of the Miraculous Madonna of Sinj, as did Mother Theresa, for a glimpse of the famous painting of Madonna, now an icon. This artwork can be found near the second alter on the left-hand side as viewed from the entryway. This alter is used for special occasions and weddings. But the icon and altar are ready and waiting to hear your prayers anytime.
The 16-17th-century icon of Madonna has survived wars and earthquakes which damaged the church. In 1716, following the miracle of the sighting of Madonna, a crown was commissioned for the painting, hand-made using 80 gold coins.
Many make the pilgrimage to Sinj walking on foot, often barefoot from Bosnia-Herzegovina and other parts of Croatia, to attend a special Mass held in honor of the Madonna of Sinj on August 15th (Velika Gospa).
For the days leading up to and for Velika Gospa, around 150,000 communions are distributed to pilgrims.
Be sure also to wander The Franciscan Monastery and stop by number 10 Vrlička Ulica, to see a tombstone of a seven-year-old Roman boy Gaius Laberius holding a ball with hexagons joined in the manner of a net-like ornament. As confirmed by FIFA, the symbol of a genuine leather ball is considered firm evidence that football began here.
How To Buy Tickets For The 300Th Sinjka Alka
Accommodation In Sinj
If you plan to attend the Sinjska Alka or other festivals, you should book your accommodation well in advance.
Villa Tripalo | Featuring an indoor swimming pool, Villa Tripalo is housed in an Art Nouveau building with original carvings and Baroque and Empire-style furniture. It is set in the center of Sinj, just 100 meters from the Main Square. Free Wi-Fi and free private parking are provided. Book or find out more.
Holiday home Sicane Croatia | Offering an outdoor pool, Holiday home Sicane Croatia is located in Sinj. The accommodation will provide you with a TV and air conditioning. There is a full kitchen with a dishwasher and a microwave. Private bathrooms also come with a bath. Book or find out more.
Other facilities offered at the property include a games room. The property offers free parking.
Getting To Sinj
If you don’t want to rent a car, you could consider taking the hour-long bus ride from Spilt. Although if you have a car, it will take you just 30 mins.
With a car, you can also explore other towns surrounding Sinj. Parking was busy on the day of the event from lunchtime. So head to the square before 11 am and enjoy a coffee (or three) before eating a big pork roll for lunch.
Festival attendees should additionally be noted that 2015 will mark the 300th anniversary of this event and expect the biggest crowds in the history of the Alka. See you there!