Ferragosto is one of the two days a year when everything closes in Italy. The other is Christmas. For a nation of Catholics, we can assume Ferragosto has the same clout as Christmas... and that's big.
What is Ferragosto (and why so important)?
More like, when is Ferragosto? Because it's not so much the 'meaning' as the 'timing' of this national holiday.
Ferragosto falls on the 15th of August which to many feels like the apex of Italy's summer. Every worker is given an obligatory week or two of holidays and everybody goes somewhere. Trains, planes, motorways and seaside towns pack out with people celebrating their summer break while inland cities become hauntingly deserted. It was mesmerising 20 years ago to see buzzing city centres shut up and piazze emptied where weeks before they were teeming with tables, lunches, aperitivi and chatter. Beaches would become heaving with holiday-goers and while larger cities like Venice, Rome and Florence were busy nonetheless, in the smaller places a real sense of abandonment hung about the vacant streets. These days, with smart-working and budget off-season flights, holidays tend to be be taken out of tourist season but August still remains an Italian's breath-easy, sunshiny holiday month and Ferragosto will always be the cherry on top.
It was Emperor Augustus who made August 1st a day of rest for the farmers in 18 BCE, wishing them, "Buon ferragosto!" - Happy August Holiday! with a salary bonus in ancient times. The whole month was a summer celebration known as the Augustali hailing the pagan harvest feast Consualia and all kinds of quirky festivities where farm livestock would be dressed up in flowers, paraded about and given a holiday too. Horse and chariot races were organised as entertainment and everyone celebrated the summer, feeling their spirits lifted for one balmy month knowing the harvest was in and their hard work was behind them.
In the 6th Century CE (AD) the Catholic Church decided to move Ferragosto up a little to coincide with their holy day - The Assumption of Mary on the 15th and then along came Mussolini in the 1920s who made it a Italy's official summer holiday. Part of his regime included the "People's Trains of Ferragosto" intended to offer lower income families a budget holiday at the seaside or in mountain resorts. Between 13th and 15th August, one could travel on a 'One-Day-Trip' up to 100km or choose a 'Three-Day-Trip' up to 200km for a highly discounted ticket. Families would pack a picnic or plan an 'al fresco' lunch and head out for a well-deserved break - something they do to this day.
The culture of Ferragosto remains, seen in picnics and barbeques, where friends and family get together to enjoy their time off. Rivers, parks, mountain resorts and lakes all fill with merry holidaymakers suntanning, swimming, cooking food and celebrating so if you do visit Italy around this time, don't expect supermarkets to be open or much going on in town - the best thing to do? Join in!
The public holiday creates a 'ponte' - bridge between the weekend and itself which means the entire country takes a few days off, also meaning Italy's main motorways block up in hour-long traffic jams with the most extreme 'bollino nero' traffic warning. Luckily, traffic jams can become social - I've seen car engines switch off, doors open and people walking about chatting on the motor way in the baking August sun.
Some places host historical events to mark Ferragosto, the most epic being the Palio di Siena on16th August celebrating the Assumption of Mary. This controversial tradition stems from Augustali horse races in ancient times and attracts thousands of visitors every year to Siena's sloped piazza to see which of the 10 contrade (city wards) will win the favour.
If you feel like taking part in the most summery of the Italian days, here are a few happenings of note:
On Ferragosto in Umbria's beautiful Assisi, the Assumption Festival takes place with feasting, religious celebrations and sagre galore.
The Mountain Music Festival - Suoni della Dolomiti is one not to be missed if you're in the Dolomites. Evey year at high altitudes a series of music concerts takes place near Bolzano. Hike up or take the lift (even in summer!) with a blanket, a bottle of wine and tagliere to lie on the flowery meadows between high mountain peaks on lush, green pastures - it's a special place to be.
Processione della Vara is one of those classic, Italian, religious events where the statue of Mary is hoisted atop a procession of shoulders and carried through the coastal town of Messina in Sicily.
“Artigianato Vivo” in Cison di Valmarino. The quaint hamlet of Cison in the shadow of Castel Brando packs out for a week every mid-August where artisans sell their wares amidst theatre, concerts and street food feasts. Every tiny corner has something to see!
Giostra del Saracino in Sarteano, in Val d’Orcia is a week-long medieval celebration in the province of Siena around the time of the Palio. Costumes, reenactments and traditions make hilltop Sarteano come alive!
and one I must make a note to attend:
La Festa del Ciclamino - the Cyclamen Festival from 11-15th August in Conco, Vicenza, nestled in the Asiago hills. This is a beautiful, undiscovered area of Northern Italy with many important, historical cities - Bassano del Grappa, Asiago and Marostica, each rich in culture with yearly , traditional events. The Cyclamen Festival promises to be a medley of tastings, music and festivities - flower markets, shows and produce I think I'd thoroughly enjoy!
Buon Ferragosto wherever you are!