Begun in 1987, the official Alabama Renaissance Faire has developed into a major tourist event in northwest Alabama. For many years it has been named one of the Top 20 Events in the Southeast by the Southeast Tourist Society, giving it recognition by more than 800 media outlets throughout the region.
Although the Faire takes place in the fall, excitement for it begins in the spring with the statewide announcement that the annual poster contest has officially opened. Entries from throughout Alabama are submitted, with the artist of the winning entry receiving $500. The image is then used throughout the year to promote the Faire and is replicated on posters, short tunics (tee shirts), etc.
Held in Wilson Park (renamed Fountain-on-the Green for the two days of the Faire), this unusual event draws 30,000 – 35,000 people each year to its site in Wilson Park on the corner of Tuscaloosa Street and Wood Avenue in downtown Florence. It is always held on the fourth Saturday and Sunday in October, taking advantage of the balmy weather and the gorgeous fall foliage in the park.
(Florence, Alabama is located 120 miles south of Nashville; 145 miles east of Memphis; and 125 miles north of Birmingham).
The city of Florence has adopted “Renaissance City” as it motto, and has designated October as Renaissance Month. Among the Renaissance-related events held during October are musical programs, public lectures, dramatic performances, art exhibits, and dance programs. The events happening throughout Renaissance month set the stage perfectly for the Faire.
One of the major events of the month is an authentic Renaissance Feast. It is held on the third Saturday of October, a week before the Faire, in the Florence-Lauderdale Coliseum on Veterans Street. It begins at 7 p.m. and ends at approximately 10 p.m. The price is $25.oo per ticket and includes a four course meal, a full night of entertainment, and the chance to become chosen as the next King or Queen of the Renaissance Faire.
On Feast night, the coliseum is transformed into a baronial hall and features food and entertainment of the period. The chef uses authentic recipes from the Renaissance period, though he does make a few concessions for the modern palate. Costumes are not required, but admired. And although this is not a requirement, people who attend the feast are encouraged to decorate their table, as much or as little as they desire. For a long time it was thought that this was a custom of the period, but in recent years we have discovered this to not be the case. We don’t bring table settings and decorations when we go to a friend’s house to eat today, and neither did they. However, it has become a favored tradition of many. Before the end of festivities, the reigning Monarch will select one table (out of all those that have been decorated) to win a prize. If your table is chosen, you will win 2 free tickets to next year’s Feast.
The highlight of the evening takes place when all those who are 16 years of age or older may take the chance to become the next King or Queen of the Renaissance Faire. Before the feast, our chef hides a coin inside a dessert cake. Those who wish to try for the Crown, choose the dessert they feel will be the winner. Whomever finds said coin is coronated as the monarch on the Sunday afternoon of the Faire, and reigns throughout the following year. Seating is limited to 200 people.
A free costume-making workshop is held on the second Saturday in October at the local Kennedy-Douglass Art Center, which is conveniently located directly across the street from the Faire site. People of all ages are invited to bring three yards of 54″ wide fabric (all in one piece), and the rest (measuring, cutting, sewing) is done by men and women connected with the Faire. A person literally walks away with a simple costume in hand which he/she can embellish with jewelry, belts, etc. That a large percentage of people attend the Faire in costume is directly attributable to these workshops.
Since education regarding the historical period known as the Renaissance is a primary goal of the Faire, activities are in place to encourage the involvement of students. For example, we sponsor an annual art contest for students in grades K-6, with the requirement that the subject matter of the entries reflect the era. There is also a yearly sonnet-writing contest for students in grades 7-12 to commemorate the fact that the Renaissance poet Petrarch originated the sonnet as an art form. Chess tournaments are held at all grade levels in area schools, with winners of these tournaments competing in playoffs at the Faire.
Students and others learn about all aspects of the Renaissance – the rebirth of learning in almost every discipline, the social/cultural characteristics of the period, and the roles that the church and powerful families such as the Medicis played.
Entertainers include sword fighters, dancers, musicians playing period instruments (such as the hurdy gurdy) or singing ballads with Renaissance roots, jugglers, jesters, and magicians. Crafts on display – with most for sale, too – include handmade baskets, handcrafted chain mail, and handthrown pottery. We have over 100 vendors who offer a wide variety of wares and price ranges to appeal to both the Renaissance Faire connoisseur and the casual visitor. Festival fare is offered at our faire by our street full of food trucks.
The Faire is planned and executed by an all-volunteer Roundtable. From within the Roundtable, there is a Board of Directors composed of 18 people who serve three-year terms. The Board meets quarterly to guide the overall planning and to set policy. But it’s the Roundtable, with an unlimited number of members, that executes the plans and stages the Feast and Faire each year. There is no paid employee.
The Faire is financed primarily through the fees that vendors pay to reserve spaces. Whatever profit might accrue in a given year after expenses are paid goes directly into the Faire treasury. The City of Florence contributes to the Faire in in-kind ways: including the two-day Faire in its liability coverage, providing overnight security for the weekend, and waiving the fee for the use of the Florence-Lauderdale Coliseum on the night of the annual Feast.
October is a great time to be in Florence, Alabama – especially the fourth weekend.