Settling in to life in Italy, you’ll soon discover that your new community has a party every year – the town festival (“festa”). Indeed when you buy a home in Italy you don’t just acquire a property somewhere warm and gorgeous, you become part of a community with ancient traditions. Join in!
All Italian towns have a Patron Saint and annually the local community come together to honour them with lights, processions, fireworks, music, food and cultural events particular to the area. It’s a great opportunity for newcomers to experience the community spirit enjoyed in their new Italian home town.
The date is the same each year and a Festa Commitee (Comitato Festa) will start planning months in advance, with the whole community eagerly awaiting news of what music has been booked for the evening celebrations. Often the festivities are spread over three days, with a combination of religious and public celebrations. Being a community event, they’re often not widely publicised on the internet, although visitors and tourists are made very welcome. Wall posters around the town usually list both the religious programme (Programma Religioso) and the public programme (Programma Civile), and in recent years some towns have set up facebook pages with information.
In my local town of Francavilla Fontana in Puglia, the Festa takes place from the 13th to 15th of September, but other towns across Italy will have theirs on dates relating to their particular Patron Saint. Whether you are coming to live in Italy or purchasing a holiday home, it’s well worth attending your local festa to experience the great atmosphere and feel part of the local community. Here are some of the highlights of our local town Festa.
The Patron Saint
The patron saint of Francavilla Fontana is “Madonna della Fontana”, our Lady of the Fountain. Along with all good Patrons there are stories that get handed down from generation to generation, with origins in religion and legend. The story tells of a hunter who shoots an arrow at a deer which was drinking from a spring, but the arrow comes back at him. Twice he tries to shoot the deer and twice it comes back.
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It is told that Prince Filippo I d’ Angio, witnessed the event during a hunting expedition, after which he saw an image of the Madonna and Child painted on a crumbling wall near the spring. Around the site of the discovery he built a chapel as a sign of devotion and granted land and franchises to attract inhabitants of neighbouring hamlets to move to the area. For local people the main highlight of the Festa is when the procession carries “Madonna della Fontana” around the town accompanied by a marching brass band.
One of the highlights of the three days of celebrations are the impressive street illuminations (Luminarie). Massive white-painted frames made of wood are built in the workshop of Vincenzo and Giusseppe Memmola, and each year the pattern is different. During the day they look like enormous white lace doilies against the blue sky. However, it is at night they look truly magical as the frames are covered in thousands of tiny coloured lights. It is fascinating to watch them being put up in the street. The posts don’t stand in any kind of base, instead wires fan out from each one, attaching them to nearby buildings to hold them steady.
Food and Friends
Even Italians who have moved away will try and visit family for the Festa and it’s a great time to meet up with old friends. You will see family groups strolling around the streets together and stopping to chat with everyone they know. Friends and family sit together at long tables on the pavement outside cafes, restaurants, and food trucks selling street food. The Pro Loco may also have a stand selling plates of local produce, such as pasta or cheeses. The Pro Loco (from the Latin, meaning “in favour of the place”) are local non-profit associations, with the purpose of promoting and developing the area. They help pass on local traditions and cuisine to the younger generation.
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To quote the good people of the Francavilla Fontana Festa Committee: “Tradition is revived in the stories of our grandparents, repeating and encouraging the pleasures of being together and partying, proud of belonging to a community that hands down its historical memory and shares with it all its extraordinary cultural heritage.”
Art and Music
Francavilla Fontana is recognised as a “City of Art”, and during the Festa period the work of local artists are displayed in the streets. Like many Italian towns they also have a very good brass band which play in the main piazza for the occasion. A special band stand, called a cassarmonica, is erected and covered in tiny lights to match the street illuminations. The brass band play in the morning and evening of the 14th September and are also joined by a band from another town. Chairs are put out for the older generation to sit on and everyone stands for the playing of the Italian national anthem.
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On the 13th and 15th of September the Festa Committee also organise two other concerts with invited performers. On the first night they often choose a fun and lively celebration band and on the last night a well-known Italian singer. The main piazzas are packed with thousands of people of all ages, from babies to grandparents. No one is drunk and the atmosphere is joyous and friendly. Family’s with young children are happy to be out with them in the middle of the night, in what is a safe environment. There are street entertainers, candy floss, toy stalls and balloons for the children. In the early evening musicians play the traditional pizzica music of the region, with many people joining in with the dancing. The local mandolin group also accompany the towns folk dancers in traditional costume, as they demonstrate the traditional dances.
There are fun and games for all ages, but the highlight is the Tug of War. A heavy rope stretches the length of Via Roma and all together a thousand people join in with a massive tug of war. Young and old grab the rope, with thousands more cheering them on. Everyone is laughing as more children and parents try to grab the rope, when they see their end of the street is losing. It’s good fun for everyone.
Of course, no Italian Festa would be complete without fireworks. There are fireworks after the inauguration of the light display, and then on the 14th at 11.30pm is a massive firework display on the edge of town. I can even see it from my roof terrace in the countryside.
When you come to live in Italy it is well worth checking with the locals for the main Festa dates in your local town, as they are often not well publicised. As well as the Festa for the towns Patron Saint, each church will also have a smaller festa for the saint associated with their church. The more you are seen attending these events and frequenting local cafes and shops, the quicker you will be recognised as being part of the local community and feel totally at home. It’s also a great time to have family and friends come to visit you at your new home, so you can proudly show them what a great community you are living in and tell them all about the local traditions.