The Virginia Renaissance Faire (VARF) is a fabulous family-oriented festival, now in its 14th season. The “little faire that could” has grown from a small traveling show to a spring mainstay at Lake Anna Winery in Spotsylvania, where they now draw upwards of 20,000 patrons over their 5 week run.
The first thing you will notice at this show is how incredibly interactive the cast is. I challenge you to get through the gate without being engaged by one of the many townspeople that bring the 16th century village of Staffordshire to life and asked to take part in a dance or game as part of the preparations for the arrival of Queen Elizabeth I and her court. Even the shyest child (or grown-up) will be hard pressed to sit on the sidelines when personally invited to be part of the fun. This is a stark contrast to many of the larger faires (yes Maryland, I’m looking at you), which seem to have forgotten that patrons come to feel like a part of a different time, and simply serve as giant Tudor shopping malls and performance venues that no longer invite attendees to be part of the world they create.
If you have kids, this is a great weekend trip. VARF remains firmly committed to their educational mission, while making sure that there is plenty of fun to be had alongside the learning. Highlights include a recreation of a 16th century military camp, where kids can learn about all the skills that went into keeping an army going, from weaponry, to cooking, to lectures on period (if gruesome, because kids love gruesome) medicine from the surgeon/apothecary. There are lessons on boarding hostile ships from the naval men and, for those of a less martial bent, classes on just what goes into making all the beautiful clothing seen on the Queen’s courtiers. There are alpacas, a small petting farm, and even a whole section of the site (Poppett’s Pastymes) dedicated to the youngest set, with storytelling, puppet shows and period games.
The grown-ups definitely won’t feel left out of the festivities with archery, as well as knife and axe throwing on tap for those of an age to risk their own fingers and toes. Speaking of ‘on tap’, John Barleycorn’s Tavern serves up a decent variety of craft beers, cider, and mead as well as providing a venue for some of the more ribald musical performances. Outside of the tavern, several stages play host to a variety of entertainment including musicians, comedy jugglers, Shakespearean silliness, magicians, and even a small circus if you get there on the right weekend.
And no self-respecting Renaissance Faire is complete without a joust. Generally, depending on weather, there will be two demonstrations of jousting per day, as well as an opportunity to see coursing greyhounds.
There are a good variety of vendors on site, selling everything from inexpensive thrift store tankards to high-end leather goods and period clothing. Prices tend to be more reasonable than at a lot of the larger and more established venues, so if you are looking to find that perfect piece to fill out either a historical or fantasy ensemble, you could do worse than make a special trip out just for shopping. Handcrafts abound, as well as more esoteric services, such as fortune telling and on-site reflexology and massage therapy.
The number of food vendors has increased this year, and a good variety of items are available, but this is still one area where the faire simply has not kept up with the growth in the number of patrons. Wait times at food stands, particularly for popular items such as the ubiquitous giant turkey leg, can be long and hot. The cast does their best to keep folks entertained while they are waiting, but it can be frustrating, particularly if you have small children who want food right now. Keep this in mind and plan accordingly. Lines are shorter earlier in the day, so it may be worth the inconvenience to opt for an earlier (or later, they quiet down again by 3:00) meal time. And drink lots of water, May and June in Virginia can be brutally hot, and only about half the site offers shade.
VARF remains predominantly a soft site, with vendors and townsfolk housed in tents, rather than permanent buildings, but a number of permanent stages and other sites have been gradually going up in recent years. It will be interesting to see if that trend continues now that it has legitimately grown into a mid-sized faire.
If this sounds like something you’d like to be a part of (and I assure you that it is), it’s not too late. The 2015 Virginia Renaissance Faire continues to run weekends only through June 7th at Lake Anna Winery. Tickets are $10 for ages 6 and up or $35 for a season pass, available on site.
Further details at http://www.varf.org/index.html
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