Today is August 15. In the US, that means that the dog-days of summer are upon us, summer vacationing is coming to a close and some kids are going back to school. Here in Italy, it is the eye of the vacation storm.
August 15 is a national holiday here called Ferragosto. Technically it is the religious celebration of the assumption of the Virgin Mary. What that means to us Catholics is that it celebrates the day, not of Mary’s death, but of when her whole body floated up into heaven, or was assumed into heaven. The Greeks believe she fell asleep, but that’s another story for another day.
The term Ferragosto can mean this particular day, but generally refers to the August vacation season. In Roman times the month of August, named for the first Emperor Augustus, was a festival/holiday month. Those sensible Romans recognized the uselessness of trying to work during the heat and took the whole month off, while at the same time celebrating their favorite emperor. It should be noted that the Romans spent almost half of their calendar year on various holidays, something that most modern Italians look back on with some wistfulness.
Like many things in Ancient Rome, the Roman celebration morphed into a Christian religious celebration, which later morphed into an official vacation period. The Fascist government made it an official holiday for the noble plebian, building seaside resorts with package deals so that every good Italian would have the right to get a break and a good tan. You can’t say that Mussolini didn’t know his audience.
The right to a summer vacation still lingers in the heart of the Italian character. These days, Ferragosto is still when everyone goes with their extended family to the beach or some place with a pool. Not that anyone seems to be swimming, it’s more about the tan and the enjoyment of food, in my observation.
It should be something of a long weekend, but that’s not really how it works in practice. In reality, from about August 1 the cities start to shut down. Paper notices posted in windows that say “Chiusura per Ferie” let you know that you’re not doing much business of any kind until the beginning of September. I’ve never been able to really pin down when Ferragosto is, but the crescendo seems to be from August 12 to September 1.
Cities are empty. The few Italians left in city centers are those that can’t go, either because they have critical jobs like medics, or because they work in the tourism industry. I feel kind of sorry for anyone working right now, they all have a look about them, a feeling of missing out on some party somewhere. I know that feeling. Beaches are absolutely packed. Prices at even modest beach hotels are astronomical, and the traffic to get there is a nightmare.
I came to Italy during Ferragosto about three years ago with my older son. We started in Sicily, landing in the big city of Catania. Usually a bustling city full of life, Catania was an eerie ghost town. Not a soul on the streets and all shops closed. It was like some kind of war had started and I wasn’t aware. Our apartment rental was in Taormina, a beach resort about an hour away. When we arrived, I understood immediately where everyone was. All people of Europe were there. Normally an elegant and peaceful resort, the August crowds streamed through the lanes, just like Main Street in Disneyland, 24 hours a day. Prices matched the season as well, with hotels charging about quadruple the June price.
I learned my lesson that year. Avoid beach towns in mid August. Conversely, cities are an absolute joy right now. I just left Rome, with perfect weather and virtually no people. Traffic was nonexistent. Because I am traveling with my youngest son right now, I took what I learned and planned to be in Rome. On a normal day, Rome would have terrified my son with the noise, bustle, traffic and crowds. Instead, we enjoyed 5 days of having the greatest city of Italy to ourselves.
For the holiday day of August 15, we decided to try and be a bit Italian, staying at a country hotel with a beautiful pool. Families lingered around the pool with bottles of Prosecco. Women wore bikinis…and so did the men. We swam all day, got a little sunburned and ate a huge dinner. I think we did the day justice in local style, and my son got to know Italian culture a little better.
We’ve now moved on to Florence, which is also quiet. The extreme heat of early summer is gone, tourists are few. It’s kind of perfect. Sure, if I need to see an accountant I’m probably out of luck. Some of the shops, restaurants and even hotels are closed. But I can live with that. So, thank you Augustus-Virgin Mary-Mussolini or whomever is responsible for this holiday. You’ve made a perfect (secret) moment for enjoying Italian cities at their best. And it never seems to end.