Every year, thousands descend upon the little town of Kenosha, WI, just over the Illinois border, to attend the Bristol Renaissance Faire, which is held weekends throughout the summer (open 10am-7pm Saturdays/Sundays, plus Labor Day). It is one of the larger "renfaires" in the country, with its handsome permanent grounds located just over the Wisconsin border from Illinois. (1st exit heading north on I-94 after the state border; the Faire's parking lot is visible from the highway).
The Medieval and Renaissance periods - though we now know much of their faults and flaws - still retain a powerful grip on our psyche. Groups such as the Society for Creative Anachronism are more popular than ever after a string of period movies such as Shakespeare in Love, Elizabeth, A Knight's Tale, First Knight, Dangerous Beauty and the quite recent King Arthur (not to mention the influences of movies such as Lord of the Rings). Historical figures such as Queen Elizabeth, Robin Hood and King Arthur still hold a tight grasp on our imaginations and tales of their adventures - at times, bigger than life - stir our blood hundreds of years later.
Even before you enter, you begin to get immersed in this world, as performers entertain at the gate and converse with those waiting in line (check their website for discount coupons). Even if there are lines, they tend to move quickly - you can pre-order on line, or get in the cash-only line and find a shorter wait. Soon you pass into the gates and find yourself wandering the Trader's Wharf.
The faire covers several acres, and were it a real medieval town, it would have been considered quite sizeable. The fairgrounds consist of several main areas:
Traders Wharf - several shows go on here, including the Mud Show
Farnham Way/The Buttery/Shakespeare's Meadow - a number of shops and food stands
Guild Hall Row - specialist trademasters here (i.e., armor, weaponry)
King's Landing - several amusements including the "Pirate's Assault Catapault"
Shoplatch Lane/St. John's Crossing - variety of shops
Gaming Glen - games of skill and luck, and the jousting field
On a recent visit, my friend commented, "Well, it really is a big role-playing flea market, isn't it?" Certainly it is very easy to spend a great deal of money at the faire - but even on a budget, there is lots to see, do and enjoy here, with many things free. You can watch them craft glass, carve wood, work metals; there is a shop specializing in chain mail (where I bought my "Valkryies" - operatic chestpieces, if you get my drift), another in plate armor. There are face painters, singers, performers. And, when all else fails, there is always the joust!
I like to dress up to go to renfaires; I have a floor-length cotton skirt, peasant blouse and vest that I wear - it's easy to move around in, and comfortable. However when you see folks fully kitted out in complete costumes, it really makes you appreciate what a few hundred years of clothing evolution has led to! If you do not have your own costume to wear, never fear - you can rent or buy various costume pieces within the faire to help get you in the spirit. Even the bathroom facilities are historically in the spirit: differentiating between the "privies" and the "flushable privies".
One tip to help better enjoy your day: pathways are not paved within the fairgrounds, in keeping with "authenticity." The walkways are either hard-packed dirt or gravel-lined; it is advisable to wear sturdy shoes.
There are several events that make any renfaire day complete:
- the Mud Show - "The Greatest Show IN Earth"
- Jousting exhibitions - the outcomes are staged, but it's still fun to watch and the knights are friendly. Our knight had a wee problem with "the voices in his head telling him what to do"!
- musicians demonstrating period musical instruments and styles such as madrigals and more
- demonstrations of glassmaking, lacemaking, spinning, weaving, candle dipping, Celtic cooking, leather crafting, more
- puppet shows and other activities for the kids
- MooNiE the Magnif'Cent - "Juggler, Ropewalker and Foolish Mortal"
- the Washing Well Wenches comedy show
- Dirk & Guido swordsman exhibition
- History lessons such as military camp and presentations of nobility
- sightings of Queen Elizabeth and Robin Hood
One of my favorite shows at the Faire is the Gypsy Guerrilla Band, who perform hammered dulcimer and more. A few weekends ago was a showcase of fantasy (elves, pixies, etc.) costumes, and at the end of the day, near the Lord Mayor's forum, the Gypsies settled down for a performance. Soon there was a ring of folk dancing happily in the setting sunlight, cheering and stomping and having a fantastic time.
In all, renfaire is a lot of fun and a great way to spend a summer day.
2007 weekend: Weekend after July 4th - Labor Day weekend