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ITALY EXPLAINED

Everything you need to know about Ferragosto, Italy’s national summer holiday

Why is August 15th a holiday? The Local looks at the history behind Ferragosto, and how you can celebrate the day like an Italian.

Everything you need to know about Ferragosto, Italy's national summer holiday
Vacationers sunbathe at a private beach near Santa Margherita Ligure, southern Genova. In future, prices of sunbeds could be capped for beachgoers. (Photo by OLIVIER MORIN / AFP)

What are we celebrating?

As far as many people in Italy are concerned, August 15th is the height of summer – and that in itself is worth celebrating.

But the holiday has a very long history.

August 15th is when Catholics celebrate the Assumption, or the ascendance of the Virgin Mary into heaven. However, it was a holiday in Italy long before it took on a religious significance.

Ferragosto, the Italian name for the holiday, comes from the Latin Feriae Augusti (the festivals of the Emperor Augustus) which were introduced back in 18 BC, probably to celebrate a battle victory, and were celebrated alongside other ancient Roman summer festivals. These festivities were linked to the longer Augustali period – intended to be a period of rest after months of hard labour.

Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

In Roman times, the celebrations included horse races. Even today, Siena’s Palio dell’Assunta usually takes place on August 16th.

The holiday now combines both its ancient Roman and Catholic roots with marking the semi-official peak of Italy’s summer holiday season.

Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP

Where’s everybody gone?

It’s traditional to use the August long weekend to take a trip out of the city, usually escaping the heat at the seaside, lakes or mountains, so if you stay in town you’ll notice it’s much quieter than usual.

During the era of Fascism, the regime would organise trips with special offers for the 13th-15th August, the idea being that less well-off workers would get the opportunity to visit a different part of the country.

READ ALSO: Gelato, iced tea and escaping to the hills: How to survive an Italian summer in the city

Even today there are often discounts on packages for the Ferragosto weekend – though you may find that train tickets and hotel rooms sell out fast.

And of course, many Italian families go away on longer vacations at this time of year too.

Will everything be closed?

If you didn’t have the foresight to book a trip of your own, you may be wondering how to make the most of the day.

Usually, bank holidays mean total shutdown even in major towns and cities, with everything from post offices to public transport closed, and that’s the same on August 15th.

And as we mentioned earlier it’s the start of Italy’s holiday season, meaning you’ll see ‘chiuso per ferie’ signs popping up all over the place.

Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

However, unlike many other public holidays, on Ferragosto a large number of museums and cultural sites remain open.

So it’s an excellent time to visit major attractions such as the Colosseum, Pantheon or Galleria Borghese if you’re in the capital, or one of the many museums and sites across the rest of Italy.

Ferragosto is also usually celebrated with special church services and religious processions, as well as fireworks displays and other events.

While these were cancelled over the precious two summers due to Covid-19, events and gatherings can go ahead restriction-free this year.

But the most traditional way to celebrate of all is with a big family lunch.

For this reason, you’ll see many restaurants remain open on this date, at least at lunchtime, and may even offer special Ferragosto menus for the occasion.

Member comments

  1. Funny thing is: in all my time spent in Italy, the 15th August always had the feeling of the ‘beginning of the end’ of the long summer holidays. A special day, with that hint of sadness that soon it will be all over and it’s back to work and school.

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LIVING IN ITALY

Are English speakers more likely to be targeted by scams in Italy?

There's no shortage of stories about tourists or new residents being ripped off in Italy. American writer Mark Hinshaw in Le Marche asks how common such scams really are and whether English-speaking foreigners are more likely to be targets.

Are English speakers more likely to be targeted by scams in Italy?

Another foreign resident here in Italy recently related to me a tale of woe from one of her friends who was taken advantage of by a local contractor. She felt she was significantly overcharged for work done and wondered if others had similar experiences. Facebook expat groups are filled with stories of visitors and residents being ripped off, with the reader possibly inferring that this must be a common occurrence.

Obviously, it’s hazardous to make generalizations. Regions differ. Cities and towns differ. People differ. In any country or culture, one is going to encounter people who are scammers, petty thieves, or just plain dishonest.

For many hundreds of years, the Italian peninsula has been inundated by waves of tourists and newcomers from countries that are seen as wealthy. Indeed, it was a prime destination for men and women from aristocratic families on a continental Grand Tour. For the past six decades, young people from wealthier countries have been doing their own low-budget version of this rite of passage, with roving backpackers in shorts and hiking boots seen in every city, large and small. 

Whenever newcomers are seen displaying money – paying for a coffee with a credit card, buying expensive watches or shoes, and eating in overpriced, tourist-oriented restaurants – someone is going to view them as easy pickings. 

There is certainly no shortage of scams at all scales. There are the minor annoyances like the guys in Rome dressed as gladiators who are eager to take pictures with you, only to then insist upon ten euros for the privilege. There are also the listings online of houses that don’t reveal the extent of earthquake damage and want a top-drawer price. Warning: “Caveat emptor.”

READ ALSO: How to avoid hidden traps when buying an old property in Italy

Tourists are the easiest of marks. Thieves and scammers know they are likely to get away before being discovered. Or the victim won’t know how to find the police and report it. Or worse, the police will respond but with shrugged shoulders. 

One episode in the Netflix series, Master of None, captured such an interchange beautifully: the carabinieri were more interested in a fragrant dish made by the thief’s mamma than in solving the crime.

But when someone chooses to live in an Italian town, the dynamic is different. Many Italians are used to foreigners coming during certain seasons to escape undesirable weather in their own country, then disappearing for months. 

In our region locals even have a specific, mildly derisive word for such people: pendoli, like pendulums that swing back and forth. It took us a full year for our neighbors to be convinced that we were staying put.

One obvious problem that generates ill will and a suspicion of being cheated is being unfamiliar with different practices. 

For example, it is not common for a contractor to clean up a work site once a project is completed, as part of the primary contract. This is common practice in the US, but in Italy, that is handled through another separate contract sometimes with another company. So if a foreigner is expecting the service and it doesn’t happen, he can feel that he was tricked into paying more.

Cheap Italian properties aren’t always what unsuspecting buyers hope. Photo by Ehud Neuhaus on Unsplash

Another problem, as I see it, is that many English speakers choose to only develop relationships with other English-speaking expats. Worse, some exhibit a sense of entitlement or even superiority toward service workers, bureaucrats, and shopkeepers. The word gets out fast, especially in small towns.

READ ALSO: From bureaucracy to bidets: The most perplexing things about life in Italy

There’s also the fact that – almost unavoidably  –  foreigners are wealthier than locals. Having a second home in Italy is a sign of wealth. Certainly, a big holiday home with a large pool and gated entry is a dead give-away. Again, the word gets out fast, sometimes to criminals. We have a friend who went on vacation only to return to find his house in the country had been stripped of everything, including the heating system. The thieves pulled up with a big truck and went to town unimpeded. 

It’s vitally important for newcomers to establish relationships with locals. Of course, that means learning the language. Not necessarily all the conjugations of verbs but enough to make social connections. On our little lane with a dozen houses, everyone looks after each other. It would be very difficult for a stranger to pull something off.  

In our five years of living in this village of 1400 people, we have never felt that we were taken advantage of.

We know that we are perceived as the ‘wealthy Americans’ in town. We cannot avoid it. We live in a house that used to hold two big families. We have a panoramic view that everyone remarks on. We receive many packages, with delivery people asking shopkeepers and passersby where we live. They all know.

According to ISTAT, the medium income for Italian households is barely more than 30,000 euros per year. And that is very often with more than one person working. Accordingly, by Italian standards, we ARE wealthy, even though we do not consider ourselves to be. (In the US, our income would be considered close to poverty level in some places.) So, relatively wealthy Americans cannot help but stand out.

READ ALSO: ‘How I got an elective residency visa to retire in Italy’

Although we have never been victimized (knock on wood), I have no doubt that foreign residents in other towns have been. 

It may be more common in parts of Italy with seasonal hordes of tourists. Foreigners can be seen as easy marks, as they don’t understand the language and sometimes are careless when it comes to showing signs of wealth. 

Some people seem to fall for scams. I once watched, from an upper-story window, tourists being repeatedly robbed of their money by a shell game.

It was like a bizarre theatrical performance, with shills planted in the audience who would ‘win’ their game. Within minutes, with lightning-fast shuffles, hundreds of euros were taken from unsuspecting players.

A mocked-up ‘shell game’: one way unsuspecting tourists are parted from their money in Italy. Photo: Mark Hinshaw

Unfortunately, as an expat, one can be both welcomed by some people and taken advantage of by others. But that’s happened to me in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago – places I know well in my own country. One cannot always be vigilant. Or paranoid.

Mark Hinshaw is a retired city planner living in Le Marche with his wife. A former columnist for The Seattle Times, he contributes to journals, books and other publications.

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