AÂ colorful maypole. A fairy forest. A jousting arena with knights in shining armor on horseback. While all of these images are evocative of fairy tales or storybooks, they are far more accessible than one might imagine. Though the days of being punished in the stocks and shopping for tunics and kilts may be long gone, a recreation of these events is ready for the Renaissance-lover in everyone just down I-64 at the Highland Renaissance Festival.
Located 45 minutes from Louisville in Eminence, Ky., the festival is the stateâ€™s first permanent renaissance fair and is now in its 10th season. Though the festivalâ€™s parent company, Kentucky Renaissance Fair, is operational roughly May through December, itâ€™s their six-weekend-long summer Highland Renaissance Festival that is the companyâ€™s true centerpiece.
The aim of the event is to place guests in a fictional version of Renaissance times. Upon entering the gates, festival goers are transported to 14th century Scotland and into the fictional village of Briarwood in the Highlands of the country. Robert the Bruce is king, and he reigns over a delightful village overflowing with vendors, activities, magic and entertainment.
Ed Frederick is one of the owners of Kentucky Renaissance Fair and the general manager of the Highland Renaissance Festival. While one would be inclined to believe a man in such a position would have a longstanding love affair with Renaissance culture, that is not the case. In fact, how Frederick came to be where he is today was entirely serendipitous.
Frederick and his wife were living in Texas over 10 years ago when they first learned of Renaissance fairs. â€œI went to my veterinarian and said â€˜Iâ€™m looking for something to do this Saturday,â€™â€ Frederick recalls. â€œAnd he said that his wife told him about this thing called a Renaissance fair, and I thought â€˜Well that sounds cool maybe weâ€™ll do that.â€™ We found it, and when I walked through the gate, I was like â€˜this is it.â€™â€
â€œItâ€ would prove to be a new and exciting endeavor for the Fredericks when they moved back to Kentucky. Frederick was born and raised here and returned for family reasons in the early 2000s. Having fallen in love with the Renaissance fair outside Dallas, he noticed there were none at all in Kentucky. Accordingly, Kentucky Renaissance Fair was born. â€œWeâ€™re developing a culture here that hasnâ€™t been here before,â€ Frederick contends of his enterprise.
And it is truly a culture to be reckoned with. As you enter the Highland Renaissance Festival, you are immediately pulled into the period on Main Street. A host of vendors are in their period garb and are peddling everything from family crest flags and intricate glass sculptures to suits of armor and flowing Renaissance gowns. The sellers are friendly and informative and always sure to remain in character. Additionally, many of them are local. â€œThe first year we were here, it was all people from out of town,â€ Frederick describes. â€œBut now, about 40 percent of our vendors are local â€“ not necessarily from Eminence but from Louisville and surrounding areas.â€
Off to the side of Main Street is Faewood Grove, an enchanted forest that takes guests on winding footpaths through a wooded glen. There, youâ€™ll find more vendors along with a cast of princesses and gypsies instructing children on the magic of the forest.Â Children can take part in Faerie Lessons or even join the Faerie Apprentice Enlistment Program.
It is this sort of whimsy that Frederick truly values. While adults may prefer the pubs and the vendors, the total commitment of the festivalâ€™s employees to the childrenâ€™s enjoyment is what is truly paramount. â€œWe try to have a little bit for everybody,â€ Frederick explains. â€œBut the primary focus is on the kids. Thatâ€™s what this is all about.â€
That said, Briarwood Forrest, which resides opposite the grove on the other side of Main Street, has a few more adult-oriented offerings than the more fanciful Faewood Grove. In Briarwood Forrest, youâ€™ll find fortunetellers and tarot card readers, sultry period corsets for sale and a mysterious tented hookah lounge. At the end of the path lies the Twisted Thistle Pub, a 21-and-over only watering hole offering an abundance of period-appropriate thirst-quenchers, including mead â€“ or honey wine â€“ and The Bloody Knight, a concoction featuring apple cider with sweet red wine and mead.
Beyond these three regions lies the great common area, an expansive space that is anchored by the maypole. Itâ€™s in this area that the true size and openness of the festival becomes truly apparent. Whereas other Renaissance festivals may be confined to a forest and easily feel cramped or crowded, the space allowed by the Highland Renaissance Festival prohibits this from ever becoming a problem.
Beyond the vast common space, on the far edge of the festival grounds, is where the real action is; thatâ€™s where youâ€™ll find the Field of Valor: a jousting arena. Three times a day, knights representing different kingdoms meet on the field to battle in one of the most iconic Renaissance fashions. They compete independently at first but then begin to strike each other with their lances in the final rounds. It is a true spectacle and certainly a highlight of the festival.
Similar action can be found at different booths surrounding the Field of Valor. On one end, thereâ€™s an archery stand that includes some light instruction and a chance to shoot multiple arrows at hay bale targets. On the other end, you can take your pick of throwing axes, knives or stars at a wooden wall and realize what strength and precision it took to be a Renaissance warrior.
Less intense activities, such as candle-making and wax hand creation, are also available. However, be sure to leave your cash at home. Most booths only accept the Coin of the Realm, an in-house currency system with one coin equating to one dollar. Coins may be purchased by credit card, and some venues even accept cards as payment but not cash.
Â If youâ€™d rather have admission be the only money you spend during your day at the fair, thereâ€™s still plenty available for you. Such entertainment as â€œNuttinâ€™ But Mudâ€ â€“ a comedy show taking place three times a day in the festivalâ€™s mud pit â€“ is sure to delight audiences of any age. As is Rondini The Escape Artist, a performer who cracks jokes as he shockingly finagles his way out of a chained straight jacket.
Itâ€™s this genuinely endless supply of droll entertainment and activities that keeps the Highland Renaissance Festival growing. Attendance last year was roughly 20,000 over the six weekends, and Frederick is eager to see that number keep growing. â€œIt grows a little bit every year in number of vendors, entertainers and patrons,â€ Frederick asserts. â€œI want to see it double or triple in size and attendance.â€
This season, there are three weekends left of the festival. For Fatherâ€™s Day on June 21, itâ€™s Steampunk Weekend with gears and gadgets galore. All dads will also receive free admission with one paid admission. Then, the weekend of June 27 and 28, the festival is hosting Tournament Weekend with Renaissance tournaments for guests to both watch and participate in.
Despite the array of festivities, Frederickâ€™s favorite aspect of the Highland Renaissance Festival is the conversion of a non-believer. As many people unfamiliar with Renaissance culture â€“ like Frederick himself when he first started â€“ come out every weekend, he hopes he can instill a bit of Renaissance flair in these rookies. â€œI saw this girl come in, and she was wearing tennis shoes, shorts and a t-shirt,â€ Frederick recounts of a previous weekend. â€œI saw her about four or five hours later with her clothes in a box, and she had on the most beautiful leather armorâ€¦I knew weâ€™d created one right then.â€ VT