Whether for religious, traditional or cultural reasons, there are literally thousands of festivals in Italy and sometimes the best ones are those that you come across unexpectedly in the smaller towns.
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Perhaps the most widespread local event in Italy is the religious procession, which can be a very dramatic affair. Good Friday is celebrated in places – particularly in the south – by parading models of Christ through the streets accompanied by white-robed, hooded figures singing penitential hymns. Many processions have strong pagan roots, marking important dates on the calendar and only relatively recently sanctified by the Church.
Despite the dwindling number of practising Catholics in Italy, there has been a revival of pilgrimages over the last couple of decades. These are as much social occasions as spiritual journeys with, for example, as many as a million pilgrims travelling through the night, mostly on foot, to the Shrine of the Madonna di Polsi in the inhospitable Aspromonte mountains in Calabria. Sardinia’s biggest festival, the Festa di Sant’Efisio, sees a four-day march from Cagliari to Pula and back, to commemorate the saint’s martyrdom.
Recently there’s been a revival of the carnival (carnevale), the last fling before Lent, although the anarchic fun of the past has generally been replaced by elegant, self-conscious affairs, with ingenious costumes and handmade masks. The main places are Venice, Viareggio in Tuscany and Acireale in Sicily.
Many festivals evoke local pride in tradition. Medieval contests like the Palio horse race in Siena perpetuate allegiances to certain competing clans, while other towns put on crossbow, jousting and flag-twirling contests, accompanied by marching bands in full costume. These festivals are highly significant to those involved, with fierce rivalry between participants.
Food-inspired feste are lower-key, but no less enjoyable, usually celebrating the regional speciality with dancing, brass bands and noisy fireworks. There are literally hundreds of food festivals, sometimes advertised as sagre, and every region has them – look in the local papers or ask at the tourist office during summer and autumn.
This same home-town pride also expresses itself in some of Italy’s arts festivals, particularly in the central part of the country – based in ancient amphitheatres or within medieval walls and occasionally marking the work of a native composer. Major concerts and opera are usually well advertised and extremely popular, so book well in advance.
One other type of festival to keep an eye out for is the summer political shindig, like the Festa de l’Unità. Begun initially to recruit members to the different political parties, they have become something akin to a village fete but with a healthy Italian twist. Taking place mainly in the evenings, there’s usually bingo, the sort of dancing that will make teenagers crimson with embarrassment and the odd coconut shy, while the food tents are a great way to try tasty local dishes for a couple of euros, washed down by a cup of wine. In larger towns these have become more sophisticated affairs, with big-name national bands playing.
A festival calendar
Some of the highlights are listed here – more appear in the Guide. Note that dates change from year to year, so contact the local tourist office for specifics.
Epifania (Jan 6). Costumed parade of the Three Kings from the Duomo to Sant’Eustorgio, the resting place of the bones of the Magi.
Epifania (Jan 6). Toy and sweet fair in Piazza Navona, to celebrate the Befana, the good witch who brings toys and sweets to children who’ve been good, and coal to those who haven’t.
Festa di Sant’Agata (Feb 3–5). Riotous religious procession in Catania.
(weekend before Lent). Carnival festivities in Venice (w venicecarnival.com), Viareggio (w ilcarnevale.com), Foiano della Chiana (Arezzo), Cento (Ferrara), plus many towns throughout Italy.
Battle of the Oranges (Carnival Sun–Shrove Tues). A messy couple of days when processions through the streets are an excuse to pelt each other with orange pulp; w carnevalediivrea.it.
Almond Blossom Festival (last two weeks). Colourful celebration of spring with folk music from around the world.
Salone Internazionale del Mobile (third week). The city becomes a showcase for the world’s best furniture and industrial design.
Rito dei Battienti (Easter Sat). Macabre parade of flagellants whipping themselves with shards of glass.
Lo Scoppio del Carro (Easter Day). A symbolic firework display outside the Duomo after Mass.
Truffle Festival (April 24–May 2). An opportunity to sample local delicacies as well as parades and a donkey palio.
(L’Aquila) Festival of snakes (first week of May). One of the most ancient festivals celebrating the patron saint, San Domenico Abate, in which his statue is draped with live snakes and paraded through town.
Festival of San Gennaro (first Sat). Naples waits with bated breath to see if the blood of San Gennaro liquefies..
Corsa dei Ceri (first Sun). Three 20ft-high wooden figures, representing three patron saints, are raced through the old town by ceraioli in medieval costume.
International Museum Day (mid-May). Museums throughout the country put on events and stay open all night to celebrate the international initiative.
Greek Drama festival (mid-May to mid-June). Classic plays performed by international companies in the spectacular ruins of the ancient Greek theatre.
Cantine Aperte (last Sun). Wine estates all over Italy open their cellars to the public.
Calcio Storico Fiorentino (June 24). Medieval-style football and other festivities to celebrate San Giovanni, the city’s patron saint.
Verona opera season (from late June); w arena.it.
(from late June). Amalfi Coast opera and chamber music festival.
Amalfi, Genoa, Pisa, Venice
Regatta of the Maritime Republics (first Sat in June). Costumed procession and a race in replica Renaissance boats. Venue alternates yearly; 2013 is Amalfi’s turn.
Palio (July 2). Medieval bareback horse race in the Campo.
Festino di Santa Rosalia (second week). A five-day street party to celebrate the city’s patron saint.
Umbria Jazz Festival (second week). Italy’s foremost jazz event, attracting top names from all over the world; w umbriajazz.com.
Summer Festival (throughout July). International rock and pop artists perform all month.
Festa del Redentore (second Sat, third Sun). Venice’s main religious festival, marked with a fireworks display.
Ferragosto (Aug 15). National holiday with local festivals, water fights and fireworks all over Italy.
(Aug 16). Second Palio horse race; w rossinioperafestival.it.
Rossini Opera Festival (mid-month).
Ferrara Buskers Festival (end Aug). Gathering of some of the world’s best street performers; w ferrarabuskers.com.
(end Aug). Start of the world’s oldest International Film Festival; w labiennale.org.
La Regata di Venezia (first Sun). The annual trial of strength for the city’s gondoliers and other expert rowers; it starts with a procession of historic craft along the Canal Grande.
(Sept 12). Street entertainment and general partying to celebrate the birthday of the town’s most famous lover, Juliet.
Festa di San Gennaro (Sept 19). Festival for the city’s patron saint with crowds gathering in the cathedral to witness the liquefaction of San Gennaro’s blood.
San Giovanni Rotondo, Foggia
(Sept 23). Thousands of followers commemorate the death of Padre Pio.
Sagra del Vino (first weekend). One of the country’s most famous wine festivals, with fountains literally flowing with wine.
Eurochocolate (third and fourth weekend). Italy’s chocolate city celebrates.
Olive oil festivals all over Italy.
Oh Bej, Oh Bej! (Dec 7). The city’s patron saint, Sant’Ambrogio, is celebrated with a huge street market around his church and a day off work and school for all.
(Dec 13). Milan opera season starts with an all-star opening night at La Scala.
Umbria Jazz Winter (end of month); www.umbriajazz.com