Festivals and fiestas in Italy

Time to party

Like all southern Europeans, Italians use any excuse to take a holiday and all cities, towns and villages stage an annual festival ( festa), often lasting several days.

It’s well worth planning your visit to a region of Italy to coincide with the vivid and colourful local celebrations, which are usually of religious or historical origin.

Italy’s colourful history provides a variety of backdrops for celebrations, of which medieval and renaissance re-enactions are among the most popular events. You can expect to see pageants, tournaments, crossbow and jousting events, historic battles and legendary family feuds acted out by local townsfolk richly dressed in period costume.

Numerous events date back to medieval and renaissance times, including the Palio bareback horse races in Sienna (held on 2nd July and 16th August), the ‘firing of the cart’ in Florence, the Feast of the Redeemer and the historical regatta in Venice, the Sardinian Cavalcade in Sassari, the feast of the almond blossom in Agrigento (Sicily), the Race of the Candles and Palio of the Crossbow in Gubbio (Umbria), and the Regatta of the Four Ancient Maritime Republics (which rotates between Pisa, Venice, Amalfi and Genoa).

Other unmissable events include carnival ( carnevale) in Venice and Verona, Corpus Christi in Spello (Umbria) with its Le Infiorate flower festival in June, the football match and magnificent 16th-century costume parade ( Calcio Storico Fiorentino) in Florence on 24th June, and the Epiphany toy and sweet fair in Rome at Piazza Navona (from Christmas to 5th January).

For a full list of celebrations, contact ENIT, which publishes a comprehensive list of events in its booklet, An Italian Year. Local and regional tourist offices also provide information.

Religious Festivals

Religious festivals are often more serious affairs, especially at Easter, when solemn processions of white-robed, hooded figures and flagellants parade through the streets behind a statue of the local patron saint. There are many flamboyant Easter celebrations, including those at Chieti, Florence and Taranto and in many towns in Sicily. Passion plays are also popular.

One of the most spectacular religious festivals is held at Cocullo (Abruzzo) in May, when a statue of the local patron saint, San Domenico, is carried around the streets draped in live snakes. Festivals honouring patron saints are particularly colourful events and include the Feast of San Nicola in Bari, the Feast of San Gennaro in Naples and the Feast of St Antonio in Padua.

At Christmas, most churches are decorated with cribs or nativity scenes ( presepi) and Epiphany ( Epifania), celebrated on 6th January, is an important event, particularly for children, who are ‘visited at night by an old woman ( La Befana) on a broomstick’ and left presents or coal according to whether they’ve been good or bad.

Pilgrimages are popular, the Vatican being, of course, the most popular destination, particularly during Catholic Jubilee years, while another place of homage, the shrine of the Madonna di Polsi in Aspromonte (Calabria), attracts around a million pilgrims annually.

Arts & Food Festivals

Many towns and cities stage festivals of the performing arts, the most famous being the Spoleto two-week summer festival – a combination of film, theatre, classical music and ballet performed within the walled streets of the town.

Italy also stages literally hundreds of food (and drink) festivals ( sagre), wine and truffle festivals being among the most popular. Local newspapers and tourist offices are good sources of information for these.

This article is an extract from Living and Working in Italy. Click here to get a copy now.

Further reading

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