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An Insider’s Guide to The Most Fascinating Festivals in Italy

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Venice, Italy

Tourists come from all over the world to celebrate Carnavale in Venice and to watch Siena’s famous horse race, the Palio. Italy’s lesser-known festivals offer unique experiences of the essence of Italy. They range from the unconventional to the sublime. Here are some Italian festivals you will never forget.

Opera Extraordinaire

The Puccini Festival is a festival in Italy that takes place in July and August attracts 40,000 music lovers to the open air theater in Torre del Lago. The theater is on the lake that inspired much of the maestro’s music and near the Villa Mausoleum where Giacomo Puccini lived and worked. Each year, several of Puccini’s operas are performed by world-renowned opera singers and conductors. An extraordinary experience is arriving at the theater by boat across the lake, imagining the composer’s ears tuned to the lap of water, the birdsong, and the rushing wind.

Torre del Lago is less than three miles from the magnificent beaches of Viareggio on the Tuscan Riviera and 11 miles from Lucca, Puccini’s boyhood home. Lucca is a walkable city surrounded by medieval walls that celebrates its famous native son with daily concerts in an ancient, deconsecrated church. His home, now a museum, houses a piano Puccini played when he was a boy. On display is Turandot’s elaborate, original costume. Manuscripts, letters, opera scores, and other memorabilia are stored in archival drawers, and walls are covered with paintings of ancestors and photographs. On one wall, the Puccini family tree shows they were a musical family back to the 1700s.

Happy Birthday to Rome

Rome’s Birthday (Natale di Roma), April 21, is a city-wide party and exhibition celebrating the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C. Fireworks explode over the Tiber River, the city twinkles with torches and colorful lights, museums are free, and restaurants outdo themselves with Roman feasts. This Italian festival also includes a costumed procession, involving more than 2,000 gladiators, legislators, vestal virgins, and priestesses, starts and finishes at the Circus Maximus. Historical reenactments, including gladiator, fights can be seen in every ancient piazza.

Reserve a table at Spirito Di Vino for ancient Roman dishes made with fresh ingredients and served in an ancient Roman building. A favorite is pork shoulder prepared according to the recipe of Gaius Matius who was a friend and cook of Julius Caesar. To walk on a Roman street, ask to visit their wine cellar.

An Epic Food Fight

Ivrea in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy is known for what may be Italy’s largest food fight, The Battle of the Oranges. In the three days leading up to Fat Tuesday, townsfolk dressed in medieval battle attire reenact the 12th-Century rebellion with citrus fruit instead of weapons. Participants of nine squads run through the streets hurling oranges or tossing fruit from “battle busses.” Each year, 500,000 pounds of oranges are splattered all over town. After the three days of carnage, one of the generals ends the war. A massive funeral for the slain is held on Fat Tuesday.

Spectators can wear a red hat to mark themselves as a bystander and noncombatant or stay safe from flying pulp by sheltering behind the nets that protect Ivrea’s buildings. Dessert lovers do not leave town without sampling the famed Cake 900, a chocolate cream sponge cake.

Surprisingly, Ivrea is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but not for its ancient history. The city was developed in the 20th-Century as a testing ground for Olivetti, the manufacturer of typewriters, mechanical calculators and office computers. UNESCO describes the city as “a model social project” expressing “a modern vision of the relationship between industrial production and architecture.”

Industrial advances have not erased Ivrea’s ancient piazzas and its skyline of stone towers and red-tiled roofs. The castle dates back to 1395 and has four stone towers and a large courtyard. It was used as a defensive post, a royal residence, and finally a prison until it was renovated in 1970 to host exhibitions and performances. The cathedral that dates back to the 4th Century A.D. is built on ruins of a Roman temple. Parts of the original structure survive, including the crypt. The church maintains most of its 12th Century Romanesque appearance.

Snake Handlers’ Parade

The small medieval town of Cocullo in the Abruzzo Mountains has an annual centuries-old festival celebrating St. Dominic whom locals believe protect them from wild animals and physical ailments. This Italian festival held in May is not for the faint of heart. It involves snake handlers competing from March to be named for catching the most serpents. Some snakes measure more than six feet long. They are kept alive and their fangs removed.

On May 1, following an early morning Mass in the town’s small church, locals ring a small bell using their own teeth to protect them against toothaches for the following year. Soil is blessed to be spread over fields as a supernatural pesticide and fertilizer. The wooden statue of Saint Domenico is taken out of the small church, and the snake hunters drape their snakes over the statue and his jewel-encrusted gold frame. The statue is paraded through the streets with the snakes writhing all over it in a procession that includes a brass band, clergy, and laypeople in traditional dress.

The few restaurants in Cocullo are booked by locals far in advance of the festival, but food vendors abound to feed the hoards of visitors. There are no reports of death by snakebite.

Venice’s Marriage to the Sea

On the last weekend in May, Venice celebrates its nautical prowess and closeness to the sea with processions of boats from St. Mark’s Square to the Port of St. Nicolo. The “wedding” ceremony dates back to the 1100s when a splendidly attired doge would ride an elaborately decorated boat and throw a wedding ring into the sea. The tradition continues with the mayor of Venice tossing the ring with these Latin words: Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini (We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination).

In this Festa della Sensa teams of boats compete in river races, and thousands line the waterways jousting for a good view of the regattas and processions of boats and characters in historical costumes. The Festa culminates at the church of St. Nicolò, and a market of traditional foods and crafts is held in the nearby square.

Italy is known for its exuberant festivals, and one of the lesser-known Italian festivals could be the highlight of your European adventure.

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