Experience the Renaissance

Whether it’s because we’ve actually been there, or maybe because we watch too much Gilmore Girls, we’ve all heard about them: Renaissance festivals. They seemingly transport visitors back in time to 16th-century Europe with “huzzahs,” turkey legs, knights, fairies, bawdy jokes, heckling, and even a wench or two. The Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival has all that and more, including those goth kids loitering by the armory and Lord of the Rings collectibles. With over 350 people working in period costume and covering approximately 20 acres, Renfest sits nestled in the hills of West Newton, Pa.

The Renaissance Festival park is divided into two levels. The entrance level is more spread out and includes a glassblowing presentation and the jousting arena (known as “The King’s Field of Honor”). A lower level is tucked away underneath the trees, which includes a majority of the shops and stages, as well as the children’s realm. The entire park is filled with festival workers dressed as maidens, wenches, and the king’s gentlemen speaking in slightly awful English accents, with all the “thees” and “thous” and “ye olde fair maidens” you could ask for, although if you keep them talking long enough, they revert back to Pittsburghese.

Many of the workers at Renfest are vendors selling old-world souvenirs. Jewelry stores abound with trinkets, showcasing Celtic designs, exquisite dragons wrapped around chalices, and a surprising amount of flasks (including one with a clever design containing a built-in shot glass). Other typical renaissance shops are there as well, selling lotions, oils, knives, swords, and clothing. Raellen Rourke, a jewelry seller from North Hills working for her ninth year at the Pittsburgh festival, notes that in the past couple years, Renfest “has become a lot more structured — they want to know where your booth is going to be — and more organized.”

Though her store and many others at the festival get their goods from craftsmen based elsewhere, several of the vendors are real craftsmen who make what they sell. Rob Yard, owner of “Woodsong Artisans,” is an earthly man who makes and sells bamboo flutes, panpipes, and didgeridoos, which are Aboriginal instruments made of long wooden tubes. While the crafts and souvenirs may cost quite a bit, the food at the festival is rather cheap and ranges from theme park food (pizza and nachos) to the medieval (fish and chips and the classic turkey drumstick). Pubs selling beer are prevalent, and it’s probably a good idea to visit one before watching shows.

If shopping doesn’t suit you, the festival provides many other things to do. “Games of Skill” include throwing Chinese stars, daggers, axes (yes, big, real axes), and darts. You pay to play, and you don’t win anything, but the catharsis of almost killing the wench running the game should be enough. There is also an archery field, Chinese archery, several small (uneventful) rides, and various face-painting and fortune-telling parlors. You can even get your “Faire Foto” taken in full Renaissance dress.

Shows are also a good way to spend time, but beware of heckling. Sitting too close to the front is like bringing yourself to the chopping block, but audience members who stand in the back also get teased. Unless you’d like to be called “Wiener Boy” or “Dumpling Girl,” the back-middle rows will keep you out of the splash zone, so to speak. This year, the Renaissance Festival has 10 acts on six stages and a jousting arena. Jousting tournaments are introduced by a parade involving the knights and Periwinkle, a human dressed as a unicorn mascot.

A more interesting and unique performance is “Cast in Bronze,” a masked man playing the carillon, a musical instrument made of 35 bells that weighs four tons and is played in a fashion similar to the organ. “Cast in Bronze” has one of only two traveling carillons in the country, and the act combines the carillon with other instruments to create an eerie, dramatic, and mysterious sound. Frank DellaPenna from Valley Forge, the man behind the mask, has been performing at Renaissance festivals around the country for the past 10 years. He enjoys playing at Renaissance festivals because “people really want it to be a fantasy day — they want to see, hear, and feel things they can’t anywhere else. And that’s what the carillon is.” This is his second year performing in Pittsburgh’s Renaissance Festival.

DellaPenna isn’t the only one who enjoys working the Pittsburgh Renaissance Festival. Jason Young of “Puck’s Creations” has been working the Renaissance Festival circuit for 17 years. “The atmosphere is great; you can’t beat it.” He met his wife in Pittsburgh — she runs the hair-braiding booth. They enjoyed the Pittsburgh Renfest so much that they recently moved to and are based out of Pittsburgh, though they still travel to festivals around the country. “[Pittsburgh’s Renaissance Festival] is not the biggest, but it’s the prettiest.”

The Renaissance Festival runs for the next three weekends, with the themes “Italian Renaissance,” “Celtic Fling,” and “Mardi Gras,” respectively. Tickets are $14.95 at the door and $12.95 online, with $2 coupons available at participating Wendy’s. It’s open from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on weekends only, and is located approximately one hour outside of Pittsburgh.