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Italian holidays, fairs and festivals, as well as carnival in Italy


The year starts with Capodanno (New Year’s Day) of course, and a tasty tradition from Modena. In 1511 that city was under siege from the troops of Pope Julius II, and the starving citizens were forced to be a bit more creative, using the bits of animals normally thrown to the dogs. Ever since, stuffed pig legs, zampone, have taken pride of place on 1 January. The leg is stuffed with pork and spices, boiled then served. Lentils (which represent money) are served alongside, promising riches and good luck for the coming year.

The Umbrian city of Gubbio has a spectacular way to mark the end of Christmas. 800 water fountains illuminated with thousands of lights form a gigantic Christmas tree climbing the side of Mount Igino. The ‘biggest Christmas tree in the World’ (according to the Guinness Book of Records) is on show from 1-10 January and is absolutely spectacular.

Epiphany (Befana) rolls along on 6 January, a Catholic holiday vying with Christmas for importance. Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the Magi. Legend has it that the Wise Men asked an old woman for shelter. The woman (La Befana) refused, and has been wandering the planet ever since looking for the baby Jesus. Epiphany Eve (5 January) sees a good witch flying from rooftop to rooftop with gifts for children who’ve been good. If that sounds familiar, it’s a variation on the same folk tales that have come down to us as Father Christmas, with La Befana even popping down the chimney.

Travel to the Abruzzo region on 16 January and you can enjoy the Farchia festival. The people of the marvellously named mountain town of Fara Filiorum Petri construct 30ft bundles (fasce) of sticks, stand them on end and burn them like tapers. Songs are sung to celebrate Saint Antonio’s Day, and then it’s open house for a feast of sweets, wines and local spirit.

Carnivals or Carnevale are celebrated all over Italy, strictly speaking it is the lead up to Lent. Venice has a tremendous fortnight-long masked event and the celebrations on the Tuscan seaside resort of Viareggio are world famous. But the little Tuscan city of Foiano della Chiana, near Arezzo, claims its celebration as the oldest in the region, with the first Carnevale taking place on 18 January, 1809, 64 years before Viareggio. With parades of giant floats, colourful masks and costumes, music and dancing, and a feast of good food on sale in the streets, this is great fun for families. And if you’re used to carnivals running over a day or two … not in Italy. The celebrations here run from the last Sunday in January to the third Sunday in February.

Just north of Bologna, the Emilia-Romagna town of Cento is ‘twinned’ with the rather more famous Rio Carnival, with the winning float being shipped off to Brazil. The Cento events make Foiano appear a mere newcomer, with the city proudly pointing to artist Guercino’s painting of 1615 Maschere Folleggianti which depicts the celebrations. This is a serious business, with a guild of float makers training apprentices in the old craft. The spectacular celebrations culminate in 30,000 pounds of sweets being thrown to the crowds. The carnival runs for around a month from the penultimate Sunday in January.

And you could finish the month with a trip to the lovely mountain town of Aosta. In Italy’s extreme north west, the region of Valle d’Aosta is bordered by France and Switzerland, with its inhabitants speaking French and (in more isolated valleys) a German dialect brought by their ancestors, who came here from Switzerland. It’s also a spectacularly beautiful area, edged by Mont Blanc, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, with good skiing and fairytale castles. On the last two days of the month, the people celebrate the Fair of Saint Orso, an Irish monk who somehow fetched up here in the sixth century. Orso spent his time here carving wooden shoes to distribute to the poor, and the 1000-year-old fair sees hundreds of carpenters and sculptors in wood bringing a multitude of tools and beautiful objects for display and sale.


Carnevale is celebrated all over Italy during February, officially ending on the day before Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. An ancient celebration, using up stockpiled foodstuffs before 40 days’ abstinence, it was also a way to cheer everyone up during the dark days of winter. We have Pancake Day … the Italians do it in rather more style. During the first week adults go to veglioni (parties), in costumes and masks while children wear disguises to school. Special doughnut strips, dusted with sugar, such as fritelle, tortelli or chiacchiere are on sale in the shops, and celebrations peak on the final day, Martedi Grasso (Fat Tuesday).

Saint Bagio Day, 3 February, marks the saint who saved a youngster with a fishbone stuck in his throat. The tradition is to ease your throat by eating a slice of panettone washed down with a glass of wine.

Towards the end of February, Ivrea, near Turin, stages one of Italy’s most spectacular festivals. The Battle of the Oranges marks the overthrow of the tyrannical 12th century Count Ranieri, ruler of the town. Four hundred tons of oranges are hurled by the various factions, culminating with a burning of long wooden poles, and a codfish-and-polenta feast. The city’s 25,000 population rises to 100,000 during the festivities. Meanwhile, Eurochocolate Torino sees Turin giving itself over to a four-day celebration of everything chocolate, with tastings, shows and workshops.

The most famous Carnevale parade of them all, in Viareggio, is the culmination of months of work. Preparing the floats becomes a full-time job, and the parades are on the four Sundays before Shrove Tuesday. The floats (which satirise political and world figures) are beautifully constructed, and are complemented by food fairs and local feasts, puppet shows, an art exhibition, a flower show, and music and dancing.

Carnevale in Venice is very different. Ten days of street jugglers, fire-eaters, acrobats and mime artists, and with fantastic masks and costumes. It all begins with the Children’s Carnival in Piazza San Marco, and climaxes on Shrove Tuesday, at midnight, as a masked Pantalon is burned. Half a million visitors each year enjoy this colourful and rather surreal celebration. Turn a corner at any time of day and you are likely to be confronted by Venetians in masks and costumes, with the city taking on a distinctly unreal air.


Festa della Donne on 8 March sees men all over Italy presenting bunches of mimosa to the special woman in their life. And 19 March sees the Feast of San Giuseppe, Italy’s Father’s Day. And a growing celebration is the Festival of Air, an eco-response to traffic pollution. To celebrate the arrival of spring, around 400 towns close their streets to cars.

Lezzeno, on the shores of Lake Como, celebrates its Palio dei Falo around the middle of the month. In 1120, neighbouring Como sacked and burned the town. To mark this, the city wards compete to build the biggest bonfire. The result is spectacular, with the enormous towers of flame reflecting off the waters of the lake.


April Fool's Day or Pesce d'Aprile is celebrated, with a favourite joke being to tape a drawing of a fish to somebody’s back. More seriously, we now get into the Easter celebrations – huge in this Catholic country. Venerdi Santo (Good Friday) is faithfully observed, though shops tend to stay open. Pasqua (Easter Day) sees everything closed, as does Lunedi dopo Pasqua (Easter Monday).

Festa della Resistenza (Liberation Day) is on 25 April and marks the liberation of Italy by the Allies from German occupation in 1945.

Visit the Calabrian town of Nocera Tirinese to see a gruesome hangover from mediaeval times in the Processione della Addolorata (procession of the Golden Madonna). In the 13th century, the town was home to the ‘Brotherhood of the Flagellants’, one of the many mediaeval sects who believed that the apocalypse was nigh, and that scourging themselves would persuade God to spare the sinful Earth. Beating themselves bloody (and frequently to death), this ‘festival’ has survived despite pressure from Church and state. On the Saturday before Easter, town worthies (each tethered to a child bearing a cross) beat themselves with a cork instrument embedded with 13 shards of glass, each representing an apostle. Nobody dies anymore, but it’s a bloody, startling throwback to the Middle Ages, and not for the squeamish.

The Festa del pitu (Turkey Feast) in the Piedmontese town of Tonco is a more lighthearted marking of Easter (though not for the turkey). The poor bird is tried, judged and executed to atone for the town ills. The climax is a jousting tournament where contestants try to decapitate the turkey while on horseback at full gallop. Rather more dignified is the Revocation Storica della passione di Cristo at Grassina near Florence, which takes place on Good Friday. A historical parade is followed by a Passion Play, repeated over the following days.

And people from all over the world travel to Florence to watch Lo Scoppio del Duomo on Easter Morning. The Carousel Blast ceremony dates to the ninth century, marking the return of Pazzino de’Pazzi from the Crusades. Bearing three flints, he directed that they be used to light a carousel of fireworks, symbolising the flame of Christianity. The current carousel dates from the 12th century, and still makes a spectacular display.


May Day is also Labour Day (Festa dei Lavoratori) and marked by parades and public speeches. And early May sees Mothering Sunday, predictably well-marked in this land of the matriarch and the dutiful son. The third Sunday in May sees Celebration dei Libri, in which all the book stores stay open.

If you don’t like snakes avoid the Abruzzi town of Cocullo on the first Thursday in May. Patron saint Dominic Abbot reputedly rendered all the local snakes harmless. To mark this, the townsfolk carry a statue of the saint through the town, draping it and themselves with hundreds of live, slithering snakes. The women of the town follow the parades with circles of bread shaped like snakes biting their own tails. Adding value for money, Dominic is also the patron saint of toothache.

On the first Sunday in May, a parade leaves the town of Piedmontese town of Biella at 6am, walking 11 miles of steep hairpin curves to reach the Sanctuary of Oropa. Here lies the Black Madonna, a 54-inch wooden statue. Reputedly handmade by the apostle Saint Luke, the story has it that it was brought to the mountains in the fourth century by Saint Eusebius of Sardinia who had rescued it from the ruins of Jerusalem. More than 800,000 pilgrims journey here each year.


Corpus Domini (Corpus Christi) falls on the Sunday 60 days after Easter, and has its roots in the town of Bolsena in Lazio. In the year 1263, a travelling priest, assailed by dates about the Eucharist, and whether the bread and wine truly turned into the body and blood of Christ, stopped to take Mass here. During the consecration, a statue of Christ began to bleed profusely. The priest, his faith restored, took the story and his bloodstained cloak to Pope Urban IV who was in nearby Orvieto. The Pope declared a miracle, wrong footed the growing band of heretics, and created a new feast, Corpus Christi, to commemorate the Miracle. Today, Bolsena marks the festival with a carpet of flowers, laid on the day of the procession, and then completely destroyed by the passing feet of the worshippers.

Genzano, in Abruzzo, has an even more spectacular celebration of Corpus Domini, with a hundred thousand people coming from all over the world to the Infiorata (Flower Festival). Months of work produce an immense floral carpet needing 50 tons of flowers and which covers 1,900 square metres of the town’s streets. At the signal, a stampede, the Spallamento, crushes the petals into the ground. Spectacular.

The official date of the Anniversary of the Proclamation of the Republic is now 2 June, but some feels it should fall on 25 May (to mark the end of Fascist rule); 4 March, the date of military unification in 1861; or 17 March, when the unified country was legally established. Confused? Don’t worry too much, nothing closes anyway.

On 16 June the city of Pisa is beautifully illuminated in the Luminaria of San Daniele, as the citizens mark their patron saint by decking the banks of the River Arno with some 70,000 lights. The celebration dates back centuries and is followed the next day by the Regatta of Saint Ranieri, where four boats from the four districts of Pisa battle it out on the Arno. A man from each boat must clamber up a hemp rope to grasp the palio of victory, with the losers being subjected to good-natured and noisy humiliation.

Check out the town of Ossuccio, on Lake Como toward the end of the month. The Sagra di Saint Giovanni sees the island blaze into life, with hundreds of tiny lamps in snail shells, followed by a huge fireworks display. The following day, islanders parade in 18th-century costume, and ride on flower-strewn boats, and there is live folk music, flag-throwing competitions and much more.

Battles between different quarters of cities and towns are popular Italian festival fair. Florence celebrates the feast of St John the Baptist with an all-in, everything goes game of football. The city’s patron saint looks down as the four quarters (quartieri) of the town battle in a mix of football, rugby and fighting to get the ball into their opponents' goal. What are the rules? Who wins? Has anyone ever actually scored a goal? Who cares. The game takes place on the Sunday nearest 24 June, and has been contested since 1530, with teams of 27 men each. In the evening hundreds of boats are set on the river, bedecked with lit candles. A spectacular sight from the Ponte Vecchio, and followed by an equally spectacular fireworks display.


And so to the most famous intra-city battle of them all. In the middle ages Siena fought successful wars against rivals Florence. Now the 17 contrade of Siena, the various town wards, fight against each other in the Palio, a breathtaking horse race around the Piazza del Campo, a scallop-shaped piazza looking much as it did when it was laid out in the 13th century. Spectacular but bloody – 43 horses have died in the last 30 years, and Tony and Cherie Blair caused controversy with animal rights activists by attending the event some years ago. It takes place in the first days of July and again in mid-August.

Visitors to Sicily around the middle of the month must see the U Fistinu of Saint Rosalia. Dating from 1624, this huge festival marks the finding of the saint’s bones on Pellegrino mountain, and the miraculous ending of the plague in Palermo. Though some cynics claim the bones, protected in a sanctuary at the top of Monte Pellegrino, are actually those of a goat, the festival is very popular, with a 50ft-high float parading the streets of the town, Cuban dancers, African drums and traditional religious songs, a fireworks display and much more. Great fun.


The first Sunday sees the Stella Maris festival at Camogli, near Genoa. Dating back to the 15th century, this starts with flower-decked boats reaching the port, protecting the Holy Virgin and Child. They float on their own boat, which appears to be swallowed in flames as it crosses the tiny gulf of Camogli. Fishermen then place thousands of little, coloured wax cups bearing candles onto the sea. A staggeringly beautiful sight, the sort of thing Italians do so well – it’s rather difficult to imagine the fishermen in Hull performing such a ritual.

Around the middle of the month, Assumption Day (Ferragosto) shuts down Italy for a day. And the August Palio takes place in Siena – you’d be advised to book well in advance if you want to attend either of the races.

From the last days of July through to early August, the old mountain village of Rovereto Veneziana becomes mediaeval Venice for a few days. The fifteenth century city fathers took Venice as their model and copied everything about it (apart from the canals of course). Bizarre and fascinating, as for a few days they revisit those extraordinary times.


Early September sees the opening of the hunting seasons, as nearly 1 million Italians pick up their weapons and stride out to hunt wild boar, game, rabbit, foxes and, er, chaffinches. If it stays still long enough they’ll shoot it. The times vary of course but the Vendemmia (grape harvest) comes in late September, with little family farms and huge estates alike praying for a good harvest.

Mid-month sees Verona celebrate the birthday of Juliet (of Romeo and Juliet fame) with dances, wandering musicians, magicians and other street entertainers. The first Sunday sees the Regatta on Venice’s Grand Canal where the gondoliers vie for supremacy in a series of races – spectacular stuff.

The first week of September sees the Palio of San Rocco in Figline Valdarno. Said to be one of the first palios in Tuscany and first mentioned in 1414, as a way of uniting warring local neighbourhoods. This five-day mix of party and combat is firmly grounded in early mediaeval dress and sports, with jousting and archery. And Florence sees its Feast of Rificolona start on 7 September – two days of celebrations, with young Florentines running through the streets of the city with rificolone, lanterns on sticks.


The time of the chestnut harvest, and traditionally nothing is wasted. Its wood is used for building, its leaves for animal bedding, its bark for tanning hides, and the nuts are eaten fresh, bottled or dried, or used for chestnut flour. Chestnut feste occur in the villages from October to November, especially in Tuscany, Lazio, Campania, Calabria, the Alps and the Apennines.

Marino’s grape festival is one of the oldest and best-known of the Sagre dell'Uva. The showpiece of the celebrations in the Lazio town, in the first week of October, is a fountain that, at nightfall, turns from water into wine. 5000 litres later, the locals and visitors are tucking into olives, mussels, clams, endless sweets, fruits, nuts and hot pork porchetta sandwiches … and wine of course.

Turin’s Salone Del Gusto is one of the world’s biggest food fairs, and takes place toward the end of the month, as suppliers from all over the world set up stall. Cremona’s Torrone festival is a lot smaller – an entire festival dedicated to nougat, which Cremona claims originated in the town. A Visconti family wedding in 1441 called for a new dessert, and the family chefs came up with nougat. Rather hard work for a wedding breakfast perhaps, but they’ve been gnawing on the stuff ever since. Artists and musicians, tumblers and jugglers don Renaissance costume and bars and restaurants serve mediaeval dishes and drinks. Meanwhile, the local nougat makers presented their latest monster (a 115 metre, 600 kilo bar) in 1998.

And that most mysterious and arcane foodstuff, the truffle (tartufo), is celebrated in the National Fair of the White Truffle in the Marche town of Acqualagna. The area produces two thirds of the national crop (around 60 tonnes). The fair runs from on last Sunday of October and the first three of November.


Tutti i Santi (All Saint's Day) is celebrated throughout Italy around the first of the month, broadly a Catholicisation of Hallowe’en, you can celebrate by munching on ‘bones of the dead’ (pastries). And now is the time of the olive harvest and pressing – just as important as the wine harvest. A visit to a pressing is well worth while, as is a taste of the first, virgin oil to drip from the press.


Every Italian village will display a Presepio (Nativity Scene). All derive from a representation from early Christian Italy, found upon a sarcophagus dating from 342AD. So the Italians can claim to have invented the Nativity scene, derived from elements in the Bible of course. Saint Francis of Assisi took up the theme to celebrate Christmas 1223, building a simple Nativity scene, which was then spread worldwide by the Franciscans.

Immacolata Concezione (Immaculate Conception) on 8 December is a public holiday. Suvereto in Tuscany celebrates its Feste of the Wild Boar over the first ten days of the month. The streets fill with residents in mediaeval garb and, on 8 December the hunters come in and pile the tables high with wild boar meat. Organic wines, honeys, oils and other produce are also on sale.

Every weekend until January, the village of Riva del Garda, at the top of Lake Garda, decorates its piazzas and winding streets, with each a different fable or legend, creating the Christmas of Fables. There are accompanying activities for adults and children that include workshops, playgrounds, concerts and Christmas markets. Immacolata Concezione sees the village’s Nativity Scene is officially lit.

But perhaps the biggest celebration of the year comes in Rome. Every Christmas Eve, the Pope gives Midnight Mass in St Peter’s Square, with the service taking at the heart of Roman Catholicism in arguably the world’s most famous church. The Christmas Eve speech is broadcast to dozens of countries. Christmas Day sees the Urbi er Orbi message and blessing by the Pope in Saint Peter’s Square at midday. The year ends with an exhibition of more than 200 nativity scenes at the Sala del Bramante (Piazza del Popolo).

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