I arrived in Italy on August 15th, but no one was there and I thought: "Maybe I've chosen the wrong country!"
Few days ago a student of mine told me about her arrival to Italy using these words. She hadn't chosen wrong, she just arrived on Ferragosto holiday!
After Christmas day, Ferragosto is probably the second holiday Italians wait and love the most: everybody celebrate Ferragosto though only a few people - both Italians and strangers - know its meaning!
Ferragosto always takes place on August 15th. It's a national non-working day and a laid down by law holiday. That implies that employees don't work but they are payed on a regular basis and those working have the rigth to higher pay for that specific day. But it also means that if a travellers arrive to Italy on Ferragosto day, they might find empty cities, with silent streets and reduced public services and, on the other hand, very crowded places to the beach, to the mountains, the lake or the river!
But what do Italians celebrate on August 15th?
Very few knows, but when the weather is quiet hot and office work is unbearable the reason why we party is not that relvant; what matters is the possibility to catch a train, drive a car or ride a bike and go leaving for good food, friends, fresh air and a bit of relax. The story of these festivities is pretty ancient, but I think that things haven't changed that much during centuries. Here's the reason why.
AN ANCIENT TRADITION
It was Ottaviano Augusto, the first Roman emperor, who gave his own name "Augustus" to the sixth month of the year (according to his great-uncle Giulio Cesare's calendar), which is currently the eighth month of the year. And it's also Ottaviano's credit for enstablishing a moment of rest and celebration right after the field labor coming from harvest during this period of the year. "Feriae Augusti" is the latin name for these festivities and from this expression comes the Italian name "Ferragosto", meaning "the rest of Augustus". This happend in 18 B.C. and for centuries this pagan holiday has been celebrated from the first day of the month to the fifteenth day, offering tributes to Roman deities of fields, fecundity and abundance, Among those festivities the most important was dedicated to Diana on the thirteenth day of the month. Nowadays there's still a living memory of those traditions , such as clothing horses, oxen and donkeys with flowers and carrying them along the streets instead of down the fields, in modern national events as horse racing. The most important is of course the Palio dell'Assunta of Siena, the traditional race that takes place every year on August 16th in this beautiful city of Tuscany.
A RELIGIOUS REASON
Around the VII century the Catholic Church moved this holiday from August the 1st to August 15th, celebrating on this specific day Mary's Assumption. According to this religious dogma - officialized in 1950 by the Catholic Church - Jesus's mother Mary the Virgin has been raised to Heaven with her soul and body. That's why Ferragosto is also known as "Festa dell'Assunzione" and celebrated as a religious holiday mainly in Italy but also in other Catholic areas as Republic of San Marino and Canton of Ticino in Switzerland.
A MODERN REVOLUTION
Nevertheless the fortune of this holidy as we know it at the present, is not related to religion but to social policies throughthe initiative of the Ministry of Communications (meaning public transport) during 1931-39, in the middle of fascist regime, called "Treni popolari di Ferragosto". They were low-fare trains available between August 13th and 15th, to give the poorest working-class the chance to take a break from work and go on vacation for one up to three days reaching the seaside, the mountains, a lake, a river or the biggest city near the countryside.
Today we would call it a low cost last minute offer and it's really common; but at that time it was an extraordinay revolution: the birth of modern Italian mass tourism! Since then Italians never stopped give themselves few days - or at least few hours - far from home, from city heat waves and stressful work at the middle of August.
And so, what do Italians do during Ferragosto?
Ferragosto activities could be numerous and each family has its own tradition to carry out for the occasion. But there are some that the most of us love to plan in order to leave the city from down till dusk when this hot summer day comes: the so called "gita fuoriporta", the out-of-town trip. Here are some examples, each one to be planned with the good company of big or small group of friends and relatives:
the "scampagnata": in general terms it's a day trip outdoor taking a walk to the countryside or to the woods in the mountains; a "pranzo al sacco" (= packed lunch) is prepared from home and it usually consists of a "panino farcito" (= stuffed sandwich), which is to be carried around in a comfortable backpack;
the "pic-nic": it's a lunch eaten on a blanket in the middle of a grassland, in a park or in a wood, prepared at home in small cute portions and carries inside of modern coolers or fancy wicker baskets;
the "grigliata": it's on the contrary a lunch or dinner taking place in a garden or in the nearby of a lake or a river, that is based on meat or fish served with veggies, prepared on a grill over fire embers; the fun of lighting the fire and the smell of smoke on clothes till night it's the imperative of this option!
the "giornata in spiaggia": it's a full day spent under the hot sun tanning on a sun chaise lounge, finding refreshment under the umbrella shadow, playing with sand and bathing in the sea waves; the meal is usually light and fast: delicious traditional foodas "piadina", "focaccia", "panini" and "gelati"can be tasted on the beach;
the "visita culturale": that's ideal for those who are not nature or outdoor great lovers but still don't want to give up the idea of running away from ordinary life; so on Ferragosto a visit to historical and artistic Italian beauties is also possibile; on a cultural trip people could visit many palaces, castles, museums or villas and then have lunch in one of those local resturants still serving traditional Ferragosto dishes as chicken and peppers in Rome, stuffed cockerel in Puglia or roasted pigeon and duck in Tuscany.
Option number 3, which is to grill open air in the countryside, has always been my favourite one and the one thing that never misses in my family grigliata di Ferragosto is a refreshing "anguria" (= watermelon) at the end of the meal!
Beside all these options, all over Italy you will find a great deal of events, parties, concerts for everybody's taste, both in small towns or big cities.
It doesn't matter how you'll spend Ferragosto holiday if you'll ever have the chance to be in Italy on August 15th: what matters is to feel that spirit of vacation, happiness and light heartedness!