Sinjska Alka: A 300-Year-Old Knights’ Tournament

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The Sinjska Alka: A Knights Tournament In The Town Of Sinj

The thundering sound of hoofs pounding down the main street of Sinj was a cultural experience we enjoyed a few weeks ago. It was an afternoon that 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 men of the Sinjska Alka Ilija Veselica
A Sinjska Alka squire. Photo Credit Ilija Veselica

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. 

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. 

Sinjska Alka: The Alka - Travel Croatia like a local
Sinjska Alka, one point – Photo Credit Ilija Veselica

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 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.

Sinjska Alka Marching the Alka Ilija Veselica
Sinjska Alka Marching – Photo Credit Ilija Veselica

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 with hundreds more congregating at the end of the track.

At the start of the race, the crowd waits in anticipation of 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, fully 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 was unable to 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.

Sinjska Alka: Barelling down the track -Travel Croatia like a local
Sinjska Alka: Barreling down the track – Photo Credit Ilija Veselica

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 as well as 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’s 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.

Sinjska Alka: Salute - Travel Croatia like a local
Sinjska Alka: The Duke – Photo Credit Iilja Veselica

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. 

 

Croatian Culture Sinjska Alka points
Sinjska Alka: Points Scoring System

Our friendly and very helpful 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 a number of youth competitions held in other parts of the city, but one I’d love to see is the Vučković Children’s Alka. Held in late August the little tykes prepare to one day to become an Alkar Knight in the real tournament.

Travel Croatia Sinjska Alka in the town of Sinj
Checking the height of the Alka. Photo Credit Llija Veselica

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 at which you can purchase hand-made local crafts the Sinjiska Alka is an excellent day for the whole family.

So, even if you were not able to score yourself one of the elusive grandstand tickets, head into town, and watch the event on the big-screen TV and enjoy the vibe of the city-wide block party.

Travel Croatia Sinjska Alka in the town of Sinj 2
Travel Croatia to the town on Sinj

 

Looking above Sinj - Travel Croatia like a local
Above Sinj. Photo Credit Ilija Veselica

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. 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 great 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.

Miraculous Madonna of Sinj - Travel Croatia like a local
Miraculous Madonna of Sinj on display at Velika Gospa

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. The symbol of a real leather ball, it is considered firm evidence that football began here, as confirmed by FIFA.

Sinjska Alka Football in Croatia
Town of Sinj: Football in Croatia

How To Buy Tickets For The 300Th Sinjka Alka

Email: info@alka.hr or phone +385 21 821 542

Accommodation In Sinj

If you are planning on attending 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.

Sinjska Alka - Travel Croatia like a local
Town of Sinj. Photo Credit Ilija Veselica

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 surround 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.

For more information on the Sinjska Alka or Sinj head over to the website or Facebook pages of the Sinj tourist board.

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!

In Partnership With Sinj Tourist Board

We were invited by the Tourist Board of Sinj and were provided tickets & a guide to enjoying the event without charge. Special thanks to our guide Jelena, who gave up time with her family to show us around town. All thoughts and opinions are given honestly and without bias.

 

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Comments (26)

  1. Just to say that your detail about 10 000 Otoman soldiers attacking town is imcorrect, it were about 40 to 60 thousands of them, it was a huge operation. At final days there were just about 700 defenders. The battle at open space never happened, town was faceing an imminent fall, but in the morning August 15, which is a church holiday of Virgin Mary Assumption, whole the field in front of fortress was emptied, there were not any enemy soldiers, but about 10 tousands of death bodies around. The very reason for that was not known, seemed as strange scourge hit them over knight. Adding the mystery vision of woman in light walking on the top of city walls over knight, was too much for muslim invaders so they took to their heels, leaving a lot of armour around. That vision was confirmed by Turkish prisoners after the battle, not just a kind of tales.
    Not any other logic reason could force such a large army to left the ground and take a flight, especialy just before fall of the town and reaching their goal. those who has a sceptical approach shuold know that it was not a first time in Croatia history that people was saved in mortal danger, during the war, by Our Lady intercession. In town of Sinj during the encirclement there were a lot of people gathered in church, all not engaged in battle and praying for the salvations. Knowing the destiny of muslims’s prisoners, it was realy to understand. So, that event was widely accepted as miracle and Alka tournament is annualy held to mark that event to this days.

  2. I have great memories of this as a child. We went to the Alka with Baba and Dida on my first trip to Croatia to see them.

  3. Even though I lived in Croatia for sometime, I have never heard to this festival! Sinj looks like an interesting place, full of Croatian history. I would like to attend this festival, it seems very unique, and it seems like you have to be very skilled, or lucky, to be able to get three points on the ring! Very cool.
    Katie

  4. What an amazing and interesting festival. I love reading all the details of the process and history you provided. I really like that they put on a whole festival for this. I’d go just for the community festival. How lucky that you were able to see this in person and sorry Baby Donkey won’t be able to take part 🙁

  5. What an amazing festival. You were so lucky to get to see it in person. Those costumes are impressive, and the horsemanship must have been incredible. That they can’t lose their hat is such a fascinating rule. Perhaps you can move to Sinj before having another Donkey?

  6. What an interesting and cool festival! An interesting cultural tradition-thanks for sharing! Sorry I missed the Sunday Traveler Link up yesterday.

  7. Maybe if I’d had the idea of using a metal ring, my pony club jousting tournament idea would have gone over better when I was a kid. 🙂 I had never heard of this festival but it sounds like something I would LOVE!

  8. That looks amazing!! A funny coincidence, I went horseback riding today after like 7 years or so! I would love to see this event, sounds like an amazing cultural experience. But how on earth do they actually score any points, looks super hard!

  9. What an awesome event. I’d imagine it’s quite difficult to get the center of that ring. And to do it without having anything fall off, amazing! I can see why they start training at age 9.

  10. Sounds like a great event. I’m a great fan of festival, especially ones related to culture and history and not just parties! I might head over there for the 300th anniversary in 2015!

  11. Truly love Sunday Traveler posts – this one really has me literally marking the calendar. I’m itching to see Croatia and having followed CTD for the past year, I know the best times. Sinjska Alka looks like an event not to miss – the pagentry is intense.

  12. Wow, what cool traditions and tournament! As a feminist I am mad that the girls are not allowed to take part in such traditions :/

  13. SJ, You’ve convinced me that this is something to see. How hard is it to get tickets? When do you think we should try to book? Thanks.

  14. Wow, that surely seems to be a great tournament SJ! It’s quite amazing to learn about the history behind it, but it’s even more amazing to think that people are actually able to hit that little thing with a lance while riding a horse. It really must have been a great spectacle to witness all that, even if came with the awareness that your little baby donkey will unfortunately never be able to participate… 🙂

  15. The Croatians sure know how to throw a party! I love the history behind all these festivals in Croatia and I’ve heard that Sinj is beautiful – have a growing Croatia bucket list xx

  16. That sounds incredible! Love all the history behind it. We have a few here too, but not as historic as that! 🙂

  17. What an interesting event, colorful and full of history and excitement. It’s exciting that traditions like this continue on. looks like an interesting town too.

  18. Wow this Sinjska Alka tournament/ festival seems really cool! Looks very difficult to hit the alka riding in such a high speed, the circle is so tiny! No wonder they have to train for this from a young age. Ah, too bad your boy can`t join it! Love their costumes and the horses! How many men are allowed to compete in this? Did anyone get full score? I love these kind of local festivals, the great atmosphere and meeting all the locals and eating yummy local foods from street vendors.

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