Food, religion and community are inextricably linked in Italy. Local festivals that celebrate cuisine and saints are so common here that they even have their own name (sagra).
There isn’t really an equivalent in the UK. I suppose you could say that Mary Berry’s power in recent years, thanks to the Great British Bake Off, has achieved God-like proportions…but it’s not really the same.
I’d heard about these festivals and had visited the famous Palio in Siena (a much bigger event focused around a medieval style horse race). However the larger festivals are filled with lots of camera-toting tourists (like me) and can sometimes lack an authentic feel.
Last weekend Sandy and I spent some time up near Lake Como. Since moving to Milan eight months ago we’ve visited a number of places in this region. Our favourite so far is a little town called Colico that is well off the tourist path.
One of the advantages of finally starting to be able to (sort of) speak Italian is being able to recognise signs and ask locals about them. In this way I discovered a sagra being held in a nearby village whilst we were there.
The Sagra of San Rocco (Saint Roch) is held every year on 16 August at a church dedicated to the saint, perched on the side of the mountain overlooking the lake. He stopped in this jaw-droppingly beautiful spot for a quick rest in between curing the masses of the Bubonic plague, apparently.
We arrived on a dusty bumpy road to discover a beautiful church with a grass clearing surrounded by trees with long dining tables are laid out underneath. The festival was small, perhaps a couple of hundred people. It seemed like the whole village was out for the party. We stuck out like a sore thumb as the only ‘stranieri’ (foreigners) there but nonetheless were welcomed with broad smiles and plenty of food.
We were served hearty mountain fare that is typical of this region: polenta with locally made cheese and sausage meat and skewers. It looked simple and rustic, but tasted lovely, especially with a pint of beer.
Looking around, the scene resembled a snapshot from the past, of the magical ‘good old days’ that I had heard so much about from my parents and grandparents.
Little boys scampered around playing football and causing mischief. A little while later they were rounded up by their mothers and dressed in choir-boy gowns then marched around the green in the religious parade (whilst they tried unsuccessfully to look angelic).
Some men rode in to the scene, bareback on horses (as you do). After tethering them up in the woods they loudly embraced their friends and sat down to join the feast.
Meanwhile the old men sat watching the world go by, cigarettes-in-hand whilst their wives gossiped with each other.
And best of all, there wasn’t a mobile in sight. No one seemed to feel the need to check emails, messages or social networks. I suppose that most of the people they knew were already at the festival.
In hipster-land (London, NYC…etc) it’s the height of fashion to attempt to live life more simply, like our grandparents did. Here in this village that is exactly what they are doing, but that’s because it’s just the way it has always been done….nothing has changed.
For a glimpse of a past era and to see the best side of Italian country life I would highly recommend a visit to a village sagra. These take place all over Italy for most of the year. There are some websites that list these festivals like Sagre nei Borghi (Sagras in Villages) on which you can search by month and region. It’s only in Italian, but don’t let that stop you, it’s amazing how much you can work out using Google Translate.
As autumn approaches I am really looking forward to visiting more festivals. One that has particularly caught my eye is the Sagra dell’uva (Festival of grapes/wine) at San Colombano in Lombardy. The description starts with a fantastic question…
“Volete la botte piena e la moglie ubriaca?” = “Do you want a full barrel and a drunk wife?”
…how can I resist?!