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.
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.
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.
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:
- ‘My love-hate relationship with Ferragosto‘ – Married to Italy
- ‘Ferragosto! Pirates, Family, And Eating Until You Explode‘ – Surviving in Italy
- ‘Your Ferragosto in Florence Survival Guide‘ – Girl in Florence
- ‘Ferragosto‘ — Englishman in Italy
- Insights in to Ferragosto — The Unwilling Expat