Italians love to come together and celebrate. Over the centuries, Italy’s festivals have become famous the world over for their scale and eccentricity. Whether you’re a food lover, fan of sport or just up for some silliness, you’ll want to experience these festivals on your travels.
Every year on January 30 and 31, hundreds of craftspeople from across the Aosta Valley gather to show and sell their work on the streets of Aosta town centre. The craftsmanship is amazing with sculptures and inlays in wood; soapstone, wrought iron and leather working; and weaving of drap (a traditional woollen fabric), lace and wicker, to name but a few. Aosta itself is very picturesque and perfect for a midwinter getaway.
From January 27 to February 13, the floating city of Venice is transformed into an extravagant masked ball. The festival, which is believed to have originated in the 12th century, celebrates the anticipation of Lent (a time when Christians abstain from revelry and eating meat). While the opulent masquerade balls require invitations with steep ticket prices, the candlelit parade of boats, concerts and street performances are free and open to the public.
This famous ‘battle’ reenacts a 12th-century skirmish with citrus fruit in what is one of Europe’s biggest food fights. Participants either run through the streets or hurl oranges from one of the ‘battle buses’ which patrol Ivrea. Each year in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, the townspeople of Ivrea divide into nine squads and spend the next three days having Italy’s biggest food fight. Great for anyone low on vitamin C!
Every February, the people of Northern Italy go a little crazy. They head to the seaside town of Viareggio in their thousands to unleash their inner jester and bring some light to the dark and dreary winter months. The highlight of this 150-year-old celebration is undoubtedly the giant parade of papier-mâché floats, some several stories high, that weave their way through the streets playing music.
On Easter Sunday, the people of Florence gather outside Il Duomo to watch the Scoppio del Carro (Explosion of the Cart). This centuries-old tradition culminates in a specially rigged model dove setting off an incredible fireworks display outside the cathedral. An elaborate wagon, built in 1622, is pulled by a pair of oxen decorated in garlands through the streets of Florence to the square between the baptistry and cathedral on which the fireworks are kept and fired.
The last weekend of May is a time of great festivity in Venice, as the city celebrates its nautical prowess with a huge procession of row boats from St Mark’s to the Port of St Nicoló. Thousands line the waterways to watch the drama unfold and catch one of the races that see small teams compete in river sprints. Festa della Sensa culminates at the church of St Nicolò and a market is held in the nearby square.
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The Maggio di Accettura is a unique combination of paganism and religion, belief and superstition, excessive partying, hard work, and traditional craftsmanship. During the celebration, the maggio, a tall old oak, and the cima, a holly tree, are cut from the surrounding forests to be transported back into town where they are ‘married’, symbolising fertility and the union of the town.
The people of Gubbio commemorate their patron saints by carrying three giant candles through the town. The people dress in one of three colours (yellow for St Ubaldo, blue for St Giorgio and black for St Antonio) and carry five-metre-tall candles. In the afternoon the people of Gubbio ‘race’ the candles and, although overtaking is not allowed, participants often go full pelt between the slopes and narrow descents of the town.
Each year for centuries local snake catchers (serpari) have competed to see who can snare the most serpents. The bizarre festival celebrates St Dominic, who locals believe fends off attacks from wolves, bears and ailments. The snakes, which can measure over two metres long, are draped over a wooden statue of St Dominic and paraded through the streets. Whoever catches the most is considered a hero for many years to come.
The Game of the Bridge takes place annually on the last Sunday of June. The town’s men are split into two teams, Mezzogiorno (south of the Arno river) and Tramontana (north of the river), who compete by pushing a huge metal cart across the Ponte di Mezzo bridge. Each team of 20 is trying to push the other back across the bridge. There are six ‘battles’ in total, with the team that wins the most crowned victorious for that year. The whole town turns out to spectate and the atmosphere is amazing.
This incredibly violent tournament is an early form of football dating back to the 16th century. Teams of 27 players compete to try to get a ball to each other’s end but, unlike football, opposing players can tackle using punches, kicks and elbows. The official rules were written in 1580 by Count Giovanni de Bardi and even today cannon fire still signals the start of the match. The winning team is also still presented with a Chianina cow, one of the oldest breeds of cow in existence.
The Infiorata sees towns across Italy decorated with beautiful petal mosaics, some several hundred metres long. The festival originated in the Vatican in 1625, but soon spread throughout Italy. Today, you can experience one of the biggest Infiorata in the Sicilian town of Noto during the third weekend of May. Most other celebrations are held in early June, including in Pienza, Orvieto, Potenzoni di Briatico, Brugnato and across Emilia Romagna.
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Each summer in late June to early September, Verona’s Roman amphitheatre opens its doors for a series of classical performances. The famous venue, unchanged for thousands of years, is one of the best places to see live music in Italy, and this year Opera Festival will show live performances including Aida, Carmen, Turandot, and a ballet by Roberto Bolle and Friends.
On the July 2 each year, the people of Matera commemorate a medieval miracle first celebrated in 1389. For the Festa della Bruna, a statue of the Virgin Mary is carried slowly through the streets on a grand chariot pulled by mules and escorted by the columns of ‘knights’ on horseback. The colourful procession, accompanied by a marching band, church and state dignitaries, ends with a huge fireworks display.
For 10 days during summer, Perugia devotes itself to Italian and international jazz with concerts on the streets, in churches and halls. Founded in 1973, the jazz festival has welcomed famous jazz, pop and rock acts, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Chet Baker, Elton John, Carlos Santana and Eric Clapton. Many of the concerts are free, although you’ll have to buy a ticket to see the biggest acts in venues including Areana Santa Giulana, Teatro Pavone and Basilica di San Pietro.
Italy’s most famous horse race sees 10 stallions and their riders thunder around the Piazza del Campo, in a rip-roaring, hair-raising display of equine skill. The Palio takes place twice a year, almost every year since 1644. Ten of the city’s 17 contrade, or districts, are represented by a horse and jockey in each race, with the chosen contrade changing each year. The other great Palio tradition is the festive open-air dinners each contrada holds on the evening before the race.
Each year Venice hosts one of the world’s biggest and most glamorous film festivals. Film buffs should visit the floating city while it plays host to some of the world’s biggest film stars, and shows a range of avant-garde films and future Academy Award-wining flicks. The film festival forms part of a wider series of cultural events called Venice Biennale.
On the first Sunday of each September, Venetians celebrate their naval prowess with a colourful procession of traditional boats, rowing boats and gondolas. After the procession, the city’s rowers, young and old, take to the water with a series of races, beginning on the Grand Canal going to the Constitution Bridge and then reversing its course back to Ca’ Foscari.
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On the morning of September 19, thousands gather around Naples Cathedral hoping to catch a glimpse of an artefact that would make haemophobiacs squirm. In a solemn religious ceremony, the cardinal removes vials of blood (believed to belong to St Gennaro) from the chapel. The crowd watches anxiously to see if the blood miraculously liquefies, a sign that the saint has blessed the city. Festivities go on for eight days until the reliquary is returned to its place.
Going to a truffle fair is a must for foodies visiting Italy. Alba’s white truffle fair and market is one of Italy’s best and takes place every weekend from early October until mid-November. The festival begins with a night of concerts and gastronomic stands, and ends with the truffle world auction and a white truffle walk for tourists. Other destinations include Tuscany, Le Marche, Umbria, Emilia-Romagna and Molise.
For centuries, Oh Bej! Oh Bej! (Oh Beautiful! Oh Beautiful!) has signalled the start of Milan’s festive season. The festival, which starts on December 7, recently moved from the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio to Castello Sforzesco, around which bric-a-brac merchants, artisans, florists, toymakers and sweet sellers gather. Don’t leave without trying the Firunatt, traditional strings of smoked chestnuts.