August 1


Ferragosto in Rome

By Rick

August 1, 2014

This time around my fellow expats and I are scratching our collective heads, trying to make sense of the traditions related to Ferragosto in Rome, and indeed all over Italy.  For anyone who isn’t familiar with the phenomenon, it’s a five-week long summer holiday, where everyone pretty much says “Vaffanculo” to career obligations and heads out of town.

I don’t know about you, but I’m intrigued by this concept of a nation-wide stoppage of work for an entire month every year.  It strikes me as just a tad counterproductive for a country that’s trying to crawl its way out of a deep recession.  But—I suppose it’s consistent with the Mediterranean philosophy of making time to relax and enjoy life regardless of present circumstances. Fortunes always change. The economy wavers up and down, the politicians come and go (except Berlusconi; he’ll never go away), and so quality time with family and friends are what makes the struggle worthwhile.

Ferragosto in Rome

The weeks surrounding Ferragosto in Rome (officially just August 15th) can be a bit surreal.  The whole town is deserted, as most residents have fled to either the sunny beaches, or the cooler air in the mountains. In the city center, it’s liked you’ve accidentally wandered onto the set of a Fellini film—a strange sort of dream that is at once alluring and unsettling. Shops are closed, restaurants are empty, and you’re left wondering if you’ve missed some important news bulletin imploring you to evacuate the metropolitan area.

And that’s what I love about it—summer has a special ambiance in Rome. Everyone is a little happier, a little less rushed. These particular seasonal conditions provide abundant fodder for our fantasies: the two-hour lunch in the sunlit piazza, the chilled bottle of Frascati wine, folks wearing white linen clothes and big black sunglasses. Forget the anxiety-ridden mood of Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita,” this is “Roman Holiday,” and you could be forgiven for hopping on a Vespa and buzzing care-free through the uncongested streets ala Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck.

roman holiday is called ferragosto in rome

For someone visiting Rome from mid-July to the end of August, this can either be a good or bad thing. It’s good because the city will seem much less crowded and hotel prices might even be a bit lower. On the other hand, you may find that many businesses are closed, which can be frustrating.  However, in the historical center of Rome, all of the museums and tourist attractions (and many of the restaurants) will maintain their normal hours (in theory). I would tell you to double check their websites, but doing so would only marginally guarantee the information gathered. You just have to hope for the best.

If you try to uncover the origins of this month-long holiday you’ll find a mixed history. Or rather a mixture of histories, as is usually the case in Italy. To wit, the tradition was started by the Emperor Augustus to celebrate the end of the agricultural season, paying homage to the gods—particularly Diana—in hopes of a good harvest. This idea was then picked up by the Christians who merely swapped out Diana for the Virgin Mary and called it the Day of Assumption. The Church did a lot of this sort of thing to make Christianity more palatable to the pagan masses. But I have a feeling that it took very little “selling” to convince the populace to take a paid month off from their labors. Not surprisingly, this appealing tradition endures up to the present day, economic crisis be damned.

The Isola at Night

By 7:00 in the evening, the lower edge of the sun has slipped behind the Roman skyline, the start of a protracted twilight that seems to linger until almost midnight. During this time of day, the entire cityscape is drenched in a multicolored glow, thick as a liquid, like pink-orange sweat dripping down the sides of the old buildings.  A collective buzz overcomes the Eternal City, as the citizens awaken from the heat-induced torpor of the afternoon and invoke any small cause to celebrate.  You can hear distant laughter and the clinking of wine glasses as you walk onto the Ponte Cestio, while stopping to admire the massive silhouette of Michelangelo’s dome rising above Saint Peter’s in the distance.

to enjoy your roman holiday in the summer, go to the lungotevere

Along the river banks, the summer festivities are in full swing. Rows of white tents are set up along both sides of the Tiber; an unbroken string of temporary bars, cafes, and restaurants of every type to give Romans and tourists alike limitless venues for which to enjoy the long, hot evenings. On the little island (L’isola Tiberina), the annual film festival sets up, awaiting the darkness to begin the evening’s entertainment.

Enjoy it while you can. Soon September will be here and the city will be crowded again. Back to work, back to the hustling about, back to worrying about the failing economy. Then when the cold and rain arrive in November, and you’re standing outside waiting for a bus that will never come, you might even convince yourself that the care-free summer days of August was just a passing dream—or something that you once saw in a movie.

È Così

So don’t forget to check out the related posts by my partners in crime on our COSI Group page.   This is our last post for a while—we’re taking off for August, too! When in Rome…

Here are some of the posts written by my accomplices:

Recent Posts:

About the author

Living in the Caput Mundi and trying to decipher Italian culture for the English speaking world.

  • Beautifully written! I tend to avoid Southern Italy in August because all of Europe descends on the seaside villages making life frustrating. Perhaps a better idea is to head for Rome and the other big cities. Thanks for a great article!

  • Really enjoyed this post Rick and your perspective on it all, it always boggles my mind how hard it is to find info on when a business is closed, I literally have started to walk in businesses to ask when they will be closed this month. Your description of a Roman night sounds absolutely magical.. will you by chance be there ferragosto weekend? We’ll be there Friday to Sunday (leaving early to Corfu) and we’d love to meet up if you guys haven’t escaped!

    • Hey Georgette! Thanks so much! Actually, we’ve already made our “escape” from the city, and will not be back by Ferragosto. Too bad…I missed you in Florence in May and now in Rome. Are you going to be in Rimini for TDBI by chance? Anyway, see you later on our Google Hangout…ciao!!

  • Hi,
    When I read your great description of the evenings and the temporary bars, etc. set up along the river, I think I might be missing something by traveling in late fall and winter. But then I remember how hot it was when I had to travel in the summer and buying bottles of ice (smart vendors froze their water) and I think nope, I’ll stick to fall and winter. I am pretty sure the fun on the river bank was not around when I was in Rome in the “olden day”–60’s, 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.

    • Not sure how they’ve been doing the “Estate Romane” events, etc., Joan. But yes, it’s really a great ambiance, despite the heat. Then again, I grew up in Florida, so Rome’s got nothing on Orlando in August. At least in Rome the evenings are cool and dry…and very few hurricanes. Ciao!!

  • Honestly, my most relaxed and best impression of Rome has been dropping off friends at Termini on Ferragosto (or the day after, as it has happened a few times). So quiet, such a feeling of being free. This is why I actually like returning to Firenze before August ends….such a great time to embrace the city and not dodge a ton of tourists and cranky locals.

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