On a recent overcast Sunday afternoon — delicate flower that I am — I found myself perched on a bale of hay at the Bay Area Renaissance Festival clutching a smoked turkey leg the size of Hulk Hogan's calf and cheering my head off for "Sir Richard," a shaggy-haired, sinewy-armed hunk of a knight sitting astride a horse, preparing to lance his opponent.
The RenFest is part performance art, part craft fair and just a tiny part historically accurate. The appeal for the more than 100,000 fans who attend every year is that it's everything a sterile shopping mall isn't: outdoors, with the sounds of lutes playing and swords clashing and the smells of wood smoke and perfumed oils, and salespeople keen on charming dollars out of your pocket with a magic trick or a jig.
It also draws a strange class of people who love to dress up and revel in their mutual oddness while playing hard. Like Jimmy Buffett fans or Goth kids.
Tampa's version is one of dozens of Medieval "faires" that come to life around the nation each year — there were 17 in Florida last year — and they do a good job of separating folks from their money for a day's worth of entertainment.
With all the bosoms and beer and ladies dancing around a maypole, it's darned hard not to be charmed by roaming through what feels like an Elizabethan sound stage, especially when living in a state that's chock-full of manufactured theme parks.
I'll admit I still have too much pride to don a bodice, but I can now finally understand the appeal. Sure it's odd, but they are all in on the joke together, and they wink as they quaff a grog or two.
Tampa's RenFest runs weekends through April 6 on the MOSI grounds off Fowler Avenue. It brings to life the "village of Fittlesworth" in the time of King Henry VIII.
Maybe you've never been to a faire. I hadn't. But after an afternoon, I came away with a few tips. Here are five ways to navigate the RenFest.
ARRIVE WITH cash
IV And make a lot of it $1 bills to hand to the numerous jugglers, magicians, lute players or stage actors. Many of them are paid by the money dropped in their hats. The ATM situation was positively Medieval on the day we visited because the credit card machines had not made it to the front booth in time for opening weekend, meaning a big chunk of our cash had to go to the entrance fee ($16.95 for adults, $8.95 for kids).
Many of the vendors also take cash only, though a few had the very welcome sign, "We accept Lady Visa and Master Card." Shopping is part of the fun, since the merchandise goes well beyond the refrigerator magnets found at other festivals.
Here you can buy fairy dust, elf horns, henna tattoos, a $50 scepter (beautifully carved with a crystal ball on top) or jumbo sea-salt crystals from Aruba scented with oils to make a potpourri that looks like gemstones ($10 a bag or three for $27).
The salespeople can be aggressive, putting fairy wings on your child before you've realized it and using your kid's adorableness against you. After a while, we found ourselves avoiding eye contact in the marketplace.
But there were many free amusements, from the stage acts to the Children's Realm, where kids can make a free magic wand and have it enchanted by a gorgeously costumed old wizard who shows them how to wave the wand and magically make bird feathers pop out of a hollow tree trunk. The parade at noon with the queen and her court was populated with musicians, stilt walkers, jugglers and pretty ladies atop carriages.
Consider your outfit
V While watching the Da Vinci Brothers comedy show, I thought it odd that so many of the costumed festival workers chose that moment to take a break and come by for a show. Then I realized that the woman in the cleavage-baring corset and velvet skirt and the little girl in the fairy costume were civilians who simply dressed up in period costumes to get into the spirit of things.
"You can't come and hang out in city clothes," said Denise Kessler of Sarasota who first got sucked into the scene when she was admonished by her wandmaker friend who banished her from his tent until she put on something decent. She's now joined them as the operator of the "Reiki Medieval Massage" booth.
Kayla Kinnaman, 9, of Dade City was the perfect pixie with an elaborately painted face, flowers in her hair and Tinkerbell-worthy costume. "I got it at Halloween," said her mother, Dawn Kinnaman, knowing the costume would get used again when they returned to the RenFest.
Even if you won't be donning pantaloons, wear comfortable shoes that you don't mind getting dirty. This is not a paved outlet mall. You park in a field and step over anthills to get to the entrance, and walk through a marketplace that has been assembled in a shady wooded lot.
BRING A ROYAL APPETITE
II I tried Scotch eggs ($3.75) for the first time and am now in search of a recipe. It's a hardboiled egg encased in sausage meat, rolled in breadcrumbs and then fried into a delicious golden ball that is cut in half and served with or without a drizzle of cheese. It's an artery-buster, for sure, but man was that a good breakfast. Skip the cheese, though — it was the gooey stuff you get in movie theater nachos and detracted from the meaty-egg mixture.
At lunchtime, we were intrigued by the soup in the bread bowls, but opted for the signature smoked turkey leg ($6). My 5-year-old pretty much took it away from me after his first bite of moist, smoky turkey meat, and we fought over the leg like dogs.
If you are more finicky, there's also standard fair food such as chicken tenders, fries, Greek food, corn dogs and pizza.
I There's a case to be made for arriving early. We got there when it opened at 10 a.m., which allowed us to stroll the grounds leisurely and get a look at everything before deciding what we didn't want to miss. By 1 p.m. the place was filling up fast and it might have been harder to get the good seats we got earlier in the day.
Luckily, most of the acts go on every hour, making it easier to catch up later. The joust and the human chess matches are must-sees; both play a couple times a day.
The constant parade of costumed revelers invites relaxing for a spell and people watching, so try not to be in a hurry.
Check www.renaissancefest.com for the list of themed weekends. This weekend (March 8-9) is Wine and Romance, with wine tastings, roving minstrels of romantic music and a free marriage vow renewal ceremony. Coming up is Shamrocks and Kilts (March 15-16) and the Buccaneer Beer Fest (April 5-6).
Suspend historical accuracy
III Though Fittlesworth is supposed to be set during the reign of King Henry VIII, who ruled in the 1540s, there's also an 18th century pirate village and enough magic wands, elves and wizards to make your ancient history teacher gag.
Having a sense of humor seems to be at a higher priority than a sense of history. So you get the comic opera Bubba of Seville, vendors such as the Tickle Ye Fancy seller of plumed hats and a magician named Sir Ryosus.
And it's this sense of humor that makes the day so corny it's cool.
As Sir Richard prepared to mount his horse for a joust that was the Medieval version of professional wrestling, he issued a warning.
"Children, remember before attempting to destroy anyone with your sword," he cautioned as he clamped shut his hinged steel visor, "always wear a helmet."