Barbecues, parties on the beach, fireworks – did anyone say Ferragosto?! August 15th might just be the most anticipated date in Italy, as this is when summer really goes underway. In 2023, Ferragosto falls on a Tuesday, creating a nice little “ponte”, or extra days sequence, for everyone living in the country.
If you’ve ever found yourself in Italy during August, you probably noticed that everything comes to a stop in favor of the holiday. Cities are typically empty (or at least emptier) while everyone makes their way to the mountains or the coasts. And it has been like this ever since emperor Augustus, who introduced Feriae Augusti to mark the end of the agricultural season. The date also coincides with the the Catholic feast of the Assumption of Mary, making it twice the reason to celebrate and get off work. During the late 1920s, the Fascist regime began organizing hundreds of trips with “People’s Trains of Ferragosto”. This way, the less fortunate Italians got the chance to tour the country.
How to celebrate Ferragosto
There are different ways to enjoy Ferragosto. Many Italians typically spend the day(s) with the family and/or friends, going on picnics and barbecues. Others spend the day on the beach, alongside a fire in the evening.
Another good way is to join local festivals, which usually have amazing parades, music, and of course the fireworks. Some Ferragosto traditions are very much alive today, and below I list my favorite must-visits across Il Belpaese. And many of them involve horses and medieval knights?! Read on!
The Palio of Siena
Although held on August 16th, the Palio of Siena in the town’s Piazza del Campo could be considered a Ferragosto tradition. Held twice a year, it is a 390-year-old horse race in which ten horses and ten riders representing the contrade, or city wards, compete. Since there are 17 contrade of Siena, the 7 which did not get to compete in the June race get to do so in the August one (and three more are chosen by draw). Definitely a sight to see if you find yourself in Siena at the right time!
La Giostra del Saracino in Sarteano
An hour away from Siena is Sarteano, with its Giostra del Saracino. With roots in the fourteenth century, the event is inspired by the ruthless jousting tournaments. Today, the “enemy” consists of wooden statues that the jousting knights from five town districts try to beat. The rule is: place a ring of 6 centimeters in diameter onto a shield with a spear while racing. Score a point this way, or be symbolically punished by a fake statue. The joust is preceded by some two hundred people in characteristic 16th century costumes walk the streets on August 15, blaring the trumpets and rolling the drums.
La Cavalcata dell’Assunta in Fermo
Here’s yet another horse-related activity for you! In the evening of August 14th and in the afternoon of August 15th, The Cavalcata dell’Assunta takes over the streets of Fermo. Ten city quarters, wearing clothing, coat of arms and shields like they did in the Middle Ages, walk in a parade. The following afternoon, there is a horse race, as well as medieval games such as the tug of war, archery and a Tmburini contest. While there, you can also try the traditional dishes of the Marche region. What’s not to like?!
Gran Ballo di Ferragosto in Rome
Imagine a big city party, in which every square, every street offers music you can dance to. This is what the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto consists of, and arguably the most famous one takes place in the capital city of Rome. I’ve unfortunately never attended one, but I hear it is a hoot. If you’re not aware of it when in Rome, you might as well join a dance or 10, because you won’t be able to get away with not participating anyway. Other Italian cities also host the gran ballo on Ferragosto, so be sure to check your local guides!
La Vara di Messina
Even if you’re not religious, I recommend you go see the Vara in the town of Messina, in Sicily. This is not your typical procession – or at least the Assumption of Mary is definitely taken to another level. The structure carrying Mary is some 14 meters high and weighing about 8 tons. This papier-mâché pyramid of sorts, pulled by ropes through crowded streets, depicts Mary supported on the hand of Christ, ascending into heaven. She is accompanied by apostles, angels, and the Sun and the Moon, among other things. In the evening, the structure is beautifully illuminated as the evening mass takes place.
Discesa dei Candelieri in Sassari
Sticking to the religious topic but moving to the other big Italian island – Sardegna. The Descent of the Candelieri is a five-century-old festival taking place in Sassari on August 14th. Participants, representing ancient working classes of the city, carry 11 big wooden columns, representing candles through the city streets, attracting 100,000 tourists from around the world every year. This Unesco heritage event honors the vow made to the Virgin Mary who, according to the popular belief, put an end to a terrible plague.