Saturday, 25 January 2014

What is Ferragosto?

Many visitors to Italy hear some version of the story that August is not the time to visit Italy because everyone is on holiday, off to the seaside leaving cities full of shuttered restaurants and closed museums. There is definitely an element of truth in this, but rest assured that Italy continues to function during August and that Italians on holiday are also tourists and they are well catered for. Nevertheless, at the middle of the month of August, there really is a date when almost everyone really does take the day off. This is Ferragosto, a day on which, in many areas, you can experience Italy with few cars on the roads. It's almost like stepping back into the 19th Century.

Ferragosto
Ferragosto at the beach
What is Ferragosto? In the simplest terms, Ferragosto is a holiday that takes place on 15th August every year in Italy. It is, in fact, probably the most popular holiday in Italy other than Christmas day. Ferragosto coincides with Assumption Day, the principal feast of the Virgin Mary, commemorating the day of the assumption of her body into heaven. Not coincidently, Ferragosto is also the modern derivative of the ancient harvest festivals that were formalised by the emperor Augustus in 18 BC under the name Feriae Augusti (Festivals of Augustus), from which its name Ferragosto is derived. During these celebrations, horse races were organised across the Roman Empire and this tradition remains alive today with the Palio of Sienna, taking place on the 16th of August. Indeed the name "Palio" comes from the pallium, a piece of cloth that was the prize given to winners of the horse races in ancient Rome.

Ferragosto 1970
Milan railway station in 1970 - Neapolitans heading home for Ferragosto.
The popular tradition of taking a trip during Ferragosto arose under Mussolini. In the second half of the 1920s, during the mid-August period, the government organised popular trips through the Fascist leisure and recreational organisations of various corporations, and via the setting up of the "People's Trains of Ferragosto", which were available at discounted prices. For many families, it was during these trips that they saw the sea, mountains and Italy's many artistic marvels for the first time.

Nowadays, Ferragosto means heading to the family home or a beach resort for a huge lunch, either at home or in a restaurant. Traffic is heavy before and after Ferragosto and trains are usually booked out well in advance for those dates. If you're visiting Italy over Ferragosto, be sure to try for a restaurant reservation - you'll then witness real Italian life in all its noisy glory!

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