For members


The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy

While summer holidays are important everywhere, Italy takes the tradition of le vacanze estive particularly seriously. Here's what to expect now that August has arrived.

The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy
A tourist refreshes herself at a "Nasone" fountain in the center of Rome on August 12, 2020. - Western Europe has been sweltering through a heatwave, with temperatures soaring above 35 degrees Celsius (95 F). (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

1. Cities are largely deserted

If you’re in a city or town, prepare for it to feel strangely empty away from the obvious tourist destinations.

In Rome, car journeys that once involved a half-hour battle through wild traffic become surprisingly quick and stress-free. And where are the crowds at your usual after-work drinks spot in Milan? Even the smallest towns will be noticeably quieter than usual.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

This is because all sensible Italian residents have packed up and gone to the beach or the mountains for a month. Next year, you’ll know to do the same.

2. But beaches are packed

Italy was a nation of staycationers even before the pandemic, and in August it’s tutti al mare: everyone flees to the beach, or maybe the mountains, at the same time.

Expect resorts to be packed and hotels, Airbnbs and campsites to be fully booked, especially as international tourists return after two years of travel restrictions.

3. Shops have cheery ‘closed for holidays’ signs

Shop workers and owners take time off like everyone else and it’s very common for small independent businesses like bakeries, pharmacies and florists to close for up to a month.

Some will tell you when they expect to reopen, others just put a sign in the window saying ‘chiuso per ferie’ – closed for holidays.

4. The summer sales are (still) on

Those shops that do remain open – mainly large chain stores and supermarkets –  offer discounts throughout August to those dedicated shoppers who aren’t at the beach. Italy only allows two retail sales a year, and one of those runs through July and August.

5. Everyone you email is out of the office

Need to contact anyone urgently at work this month? If they’re in Italy, then too bad.

Office workers are also usually on holiday, and a great many offices close altogether for three or four weeks.

Forget about out-of-office email replies suggesting an alternative contact or that the person will be checking their email sporadically – they will be on the beach and whatever you want can wait until they are back.

This applies to banks and to any kind of government bureaucracy, and you may also have trouble getting medical appointments at this time of year.

There’s only one place to be in Italy in August, as far as many Italians are concerned. Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP

6. There are ‘red alert’ heat warnings in place

This summer has been an unusually hot one and Italy has already experienced several extreme heatwaves. But as we get into August temperatures will no doubt be high across the board, meaning the country’s health authorities put heat warnings in place on the hottest days and strongly advise people to stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the afternoon.

7. Every major road has a traffic warning

Italy’s state police make good use of the red pen when putting together the official traffic forecast for August. All weekends feature ‘red dot’ traffic warnings as people head off on holiday, or return home.

The final weekend of August, when people head home in time for il rientro (the return to school and work in September) is also best avoided.

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For members


Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

Shutting down most of the country for a month and taking long vacations at a time of economic crisis may seem incomprehensible to many non-Italians. But Italy's August break is sacred - and for good reason, says Silvia Marchetti.

Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

Soon it will be that time of year again – Ferragosto, August 15th: one single holiday that justifies the shutting down of Italy for a whole month. 

Most families will be going on mandatory vacations of two to three weeks as firms, public and private offices, and even clinics will be closed, with reduced medical staff in hospitals. The whole country takes a long break, leaving many foreigners baffled.

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

Italian holidays are untouchable, and the most ‘sacrosanto’ (sacrosanct) of all is Ferragosto, which in terms of vacation period is usually tied by Italians to the two weeks preceding the 15th or the two following.

I was shocked to read in the news recently that thousands of Italians have asked for bank loans of up to 6.000 euros – to be paid back over four years – just to be able to go on vacation this summer.

But even if they’re broke, unemployed, or don’t get paid holidays, Italians consider Ferragosto a ‘must’. It’s a deeply felt festivity, almost like Christmas, even if it has little to do with religion – at least apparently.

Ferragosto unites all social classes, professions and ages – cleaners, bankers and politicians – and coincides with the hottest month of the year, and high tourism season. If I can choose, I tend to pick June or September for a break, when there are fewer crowds and it’s cheaper. 

READ ALSO: Ten ways to save money on your trip to Italy this summer

But no matter how expensive renting a sun umbrella and two sun beds can be on August 15th, nobody gives up the idea. If Italians don’t somehow celebrate Ferragosto, they feel lost. 

The 15th is usually time for lunches on the beach with bowls of pasta under huge umbrellas and tents, or picnics in the forest, hikes, or barbecues with friends and relatives. 

The rest of the month is spent enjoying whatever holidays have been planned, wherever that may be, though traditionally families tend to stay in Italy rather than travel abroad.  

To understand why it’s so sacred, you need to look back centuries. 

Ferragosto is among the oldest Italian holidays. It hails back to the ancient Romans, to Emperor Augustus Octavian who first institutionalized the celebration in the first century, and which in fact is named after him – Feriae Augusti, meaning ‘Augustus’ rest’. 

It used to be party time, with chariot races and flowers thrown in the air, a way to celebrate harvests and honor the rural divinities of abundance and fertility.

Even though at the beginning it was just one day off – the 13th in honor of the hunting goddess Diana – the Romans stretched it to include all of August. It was also a very democratic celebration as peasants, slaves, aristocrats and senators would mingle together. 

READ ALSO: Why now’s the best time to discover Italy’s secret lakes and mountains

Then, when Christianity came along, as with many other pagan festivities Ferragosto was kept and overlapped to coincide with the Assumption of Mary, celebrated on August 15th – though hardly anyone goes to church nowadays, when they can instead be lazing on the beach and splashing in the water.

The Fascist regime, in its attempt to endorse and exploit the trademark of Ancient Rome as propaganda, further legitimized Ferragosto, Mussolini branding it as the much-deserved break from the hard work in the fields and factories, with organized train rides allowing families to visit unknown Italian cities. 

It is no coincidence that August holidays are so hardwired in the minds of Italians. There’s also an anthropological reason why. 

As August is the hottest month of summer, promoting it as the perfect time for ‘essential’ vacations ties in well with the scorching hot climate. After all, how could anyone keep working – albeit with AC – in unbearably high, humid temperatures that don’t allow you to think straight?

Such a long holiday could never have taken hold in Sweden, for instance, and not just because of the Protestant work ethic as opposed to laid-back Catholicism.

Italian Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu in the 1770’s suggested that Italy was penalized by its warm climate, making people more prone to lazing around, and thus less willing to work.

You just need to compare Italy’s national holidays calendar with that of the UK and the US: we have more than a dozen, which are often tied to ‘ponti’ – ‘bridges’: a day or days between a holiday and a weekend, which people often take off work.

A man walks in a narrow street in Rome on August 14th, 2017. Photo by Marie-Laure MESSANA / AFP

At the moment, Rome is an almost empty city. Many workers have either already left or are prepping for the month-long break. It’s mostly tourists roaming the streets under the sultry sun, amazed at seeing already quite a few ‘chiuso per ferie (shut for holidays) signs on restaurant and boutique doors. 

August will be a dead month, and cities would turn into ghost towns if it weren’t for foreigners. 

But what may not at first make sense to non-Italians (businesses closing down and losing money, people getting into debt just to go to the beach) is actually very clear.

Most Italians are never really broke. They may be facing hard times, and often do complain there’s not much work around, but at the end of the day they often have large families including grandparents who are still happy to splash out and fund those all-important holidays.

And it’s not unusual for people to have access to second homes at the beach, either their own or belonging to a family member, where they can stay for the entire month of August without spending any more than they would have if they’d stayed at home.

It’s no wonder, then, that Italy’s August holidays can’t be touched.