ITALIAN HOLIDAYS, FAIRS AND FESTIVALS, AS WELL AS CARNIVAL
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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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