If you’ve ever been to Italy in August, especially mid-August, you will have noticed that the whole country seems to be on holiday, businesses included. The only enterprises that are 100% operational are the bathing establishments, bursting at the seams with deeply tanned bodies, scampering children, and an air of utterly carefree enjoyment.
So what’s up with this August shutdown of a nation?
Blame it on Ferragosto — the biggest holiday of the year in Italy.
The tradition of Ferragosto goes back over two thousand years, tracing the evolving story of the nation from times long before there even was a nation. To the Italian people, Ferragosto is the most beloved of holidays, so much so that one would think its celebration were imprinted on their very DNA.
Read on for a little background on this Italian superholiday, as well as what to expect if you are visiting the country in mid-August.
Ferragosto: Its Roots and History
The Feriae Augusti date back to Roman times, when the Emperor Augustus inaugurated the festival in 18 BC. After the long and arduous summer season of cultivation, the holiday was created to give workers a rest from their toil in the fields. Originally the celebration fell on August 1.
Fast forward many centuries, to when the Catholic Church is calling the shots. In order to include a religious component in the holiday, the church moved the date of Ferragosto to August 15 — the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. This feast day commemorates Mary’s bodily ascension into heaven.
Ferragosto in Modern Times
Ferragosto these days is synonymous with an exodus from the city to the sea or mountains. The vast majority of businesses are closed, except for some restaurants and cafés (and, of course, the bagni, the seaside bathing establishments).
During the era of fascism, Mussolini invented schemes to aid the less-privileged classes, whereby they could travel very cheaply by train to the seaside or to visit cultural sites. The people packed lunches and picnicked on shores and lawns, a tradition that continues to this day, irrespective of social class.
Ferragosto: What to Expect if You Are Vacationing in Italy in Mid-August
During Ferragosto, public transportation will be running, but on the festivi (holiday) schedule. Some archeological sites will be open on August 15. Most museums, however, will be closed. The Vatican Museums are closed on August 14 and 15.
You can count on offices and the majority of businesses to be closed. Many restaurants will also be taking ferie (holidays).
Ferragosto can be a pleasant time to visit Italy — if you don’t mind the heat. You will find streets and parks in inland places such as Rome and Florence pretty much empty, and a parking space or shady spot on a lawn easy to find. Any place on the seaside, on the other hand, will be a total party scene overflowing with humanity.
In Giardini Naxos (on Sicily’s eastern shore), the local tradition is to camp out on the beach on the evening on August 14 The scene is very lively. Music is playing, and talking and laughter fill the air along with the marvelous smells of barbequing. If you haven’t come prepared, nessun problema! One of the locals will surely invite you to sit down and partake in the charbroiled yumminess along with a Birra dello Stretto (beer produced in nearby Messina). As the writer of this newsletter can attest, you can't beat Southern Italian hospitality at this most festive time of year.