Several years ago on a magical Saturday night in the Umbrian hilltown of Spello I watched its citizens transform the narrow stone streets into vibrant tapestries made entirely of flower petals. During the annual Infiorata (flowering) for the feast of Corpus Christi (the Holy Eucharist), months of gathering and preparation culminate in a marathon of painstaking work to create biblical scenes and reproductions of masterpieces by artists like Michelangelo and Raphael. At noon the local bishop carries the communion host in a solemn procession along the carpet of flowers. By late afternoon, after thousands of admirers have strolled through the narrow streets, all that lingers is the sweet scent of blossoms in the air.
Throughout the year la festa italiana provides a delightful glimpse into Italy’s history and culture. Everything from a national holiday to a village saint’s day to a harvest, whether of wheat, olives, or grapes, is a good reason for festevolezza (rejoicing), usually with copious quantities of special foods and lively crowds.
”Quando è festa, è festa!” Italians say, “When it’s a party, party!” If you’re heading to Italy in the coming months, you might want to join in some of these festivities.
Sagra della Fragola (Strawberry Festival) in Nemi, second Sunday in June
The volcanic soil around Lake Nemi south of Rome produces strawberries—including the scrumptious fragoline di bosco (wild strawberries)—renowned for their sweetness and flavor. At this annual celebration of strawberry season, women dressed in rustic costumes of bygone days sell fresh-picked berries with fresh cream or ice cream and strawberries in pancakes, milk shakes, and liqueurs. If you like strawberries, you’ll love the chance to sample them in more ways than you might imagine.
Festa dei Gigli (Festival of the Lilies) in Nola, first Sunday after the summer solstice
Ever since the fifteenth century the residents of this southern town have been celebrating the return of the local bishop in the fifth-century after he liberated Nola’s men, who had been enslaved in Africa. Nola’s citizens came out to welcome him carrying huge bouquets of lilies. For centuries the people substituted a very heavy candle, which they lit in the city piazza. Today’s gigli (lilies) have evolved into four-ton, 75-foot-high creations of wood and paper-mache paraded through the narrow streets by relays of 90 to 120 men as orchestras play and girls with tambourines dance.
Festino di Santa Rosalia, Palermo (mid-July)
Every year Sicilians give thanks to Santa Rosalia, Palermo’s patron saint. La Santuzza (the little saint), as she’s affectionately called, saved the town from the plague in 1624. The centerpiece of the elaborate celebrations has always been a triumphal cart—sometimes resembling an enormous fortress, sometimes a gigantic warship, once so opulent it was called “the little mountain of gold.” Today’s cart is a model of a seventeenth-century triumphal chariot, which looks, as author Carol Field puts it in Celebrating Italy, like “a great golden galleon set on a copper-colored seashell,” pulled by six horses with an entire velvet-costumed orchestra inside.
During the festivities Palermo drapes its streets in canopies of lights that shimmer like jewels. The major events are the procession of the triumphal cart to the sea on July 13 and a reenactment of the miracle of Santa Rosalia in the piazza of the Royal Palace the next day, followed by a stunning gioco dei fuochi (play of fire) that draws thousands of spectators.
Torta Dei Fieschi (Wedding Cake) in Lavagna, August 14
Count Opizzo Fieschi wanted to demonstrate his great love for his bride, Bianca dei Bianchi of Siena, when they wed on August 14, 1230. And so he ordered a cake made with 4,000 eggs, 3,300 pounds of sugar, and 3,300 pounds of flour, frosted with 110 pounds of almond paste. The thirty-foot-high cake, shared by everyone in the town, testified to the immensity of his devotion.
Every year the wedding is reenacted, with a different young woman as the beautiful bride. There are fencing contests, flag-throwing demonstrations, concerts, a candlelight parade with knights in costume, and—of course—an immense wedding cake. Men in medieval costume carry the torta through the town and hand out lottery tickets—blue for men, pink for women, each pair with a matching code word. The men and women must compare cards with scores of people to find their match and qualify for a slice of cake.
Every year many Italians observe Assumption Day, also known as Ferragosto, on August 15
Ferragosto, August 15
The ancient Romans honored various gods, particularly the goddess Diana and the cycle of fertility and ripening, with month-long celebrations they called Feriae Augusti (Fairs of the Emperor Augustus). Now both a national holiday and the feast of the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Christ, into heaven, Ferragosto marks the height of the Italian vacation season.
The entire country shuts down to celebrate—or to indulge in dolce far niente (sweet doing nothing). Italy’s major cities empty at this time of year, and the expression Ferragosto in città (the August holiday in town) refers to the loneliness of those left behind. If you’re staying in a seaside town or mountain retreat, you can join in low-key celebrations that typically include a church procession, a concert in the piazza and fireworks.
Sagra e palio dell'Oca Mortara
Sagra dell’Oca (Goose Festival) in Mortara, last Sunday in September
This festival in the province of Pavia commemorates a gastronomic innovation: the invention of salami made with goose meat. The annual tribute features a Palio dell’Oca (goose race), along with street entertainment and stalls where you can taste other goose-based treats, including Italy’s version of a dish for which the French are famous: foie gras.
Dianne Hales is the author of the New York Times-bestselling LA BELLA LINGUA: My Love Affair with Italian, the World’s Most Enchanting Language [Link: http://amzn.to/1UizNbz] and MONA LISA: A Life Discovered. [Link: http:// amzn.to/27VF2Fz.]