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July 2nd – The famous horse races of Siena take place twice a year, once on July 2nd and again on August 16th. The sleepy hill town in Tuscany erupts with civic excitement amidst the Medieval architecture. The famous races have celebrated heritage and tradition for over 500 years. The medieval city is divided into 17 distinctive neighborhoods.
10 neighborhoods make it to the horse race each embodied in their banner, along with the strength and speed of their horse. The neighborhoods, known locally as contrade, receive their horses through a lottery system. They shower the horses with affection, grooming, and training in connection with the local church. Flags shine with bright colors and the symbols of each neighborhood:
Citizens of contrade fly their respective flags all year but become more spirited near the races. The day before the race, jockeys meet with their horses during the customary charge of the carabinieri, a practice run through the main square of Piazza del Campo.
The usual tranquil town continues to pulse with anticipation after midnight with locals eating, drinking, singing, and sharing in the energy of the night before the big race. Priests at the contrade parishes bells their respective horses. Workmen fill Piazza del Campo with dirt to help the horses run.
The day begins at 10.30 in the Palazzo Comunale, where the mayor confirms the name of the jockeys. A blessing ceremony starts the procession before the race at three in the afternoon. Members of each contrade march through the streets dressed in medieval regalia, shining with the colors of their particular neighborhood with over 600 participants in total. The display offers an homage to the city’s illustrious past, crowned by the race. The horses enter the piazza.
Jockeys receive their whips, which are used more to irritate their opponents than to use against the horses. Horses must run three laps around the piazza. The first horse to cross the finish line wins the evening. The jockey does not have to be present when the horse crosses the finish line to win. The champion contrade receives the drappellone, a hand-painted banner topped by a silver plate, with the inscription of the previous winners decorating the silk alongside sacred symbols for the Sienese. An estimated 25,000 people celebrate the event each year.
First Week of July – The medieval town of Brisighella in Emilia-Romagna commemorates its history and heritage each year during the Medieval Feasts, which began in the 1980s. Every year the festivities are dedicated to a topic related to the sacred or secular culture of the town’s medieval history. Theatrical performances, concerts, and exhibitions help locals and visitors celebrate around the 13th century defensive walls, castle, and restructured clock tower.
Banquets turn taverns into merry dining halls and food stalls serve historical dishes made from proper antique recipes. The crafts and artisan market provides handmade merchandise made by the vendors, including toys, textiles, and cooking utensils. Jesters and storytellers parade through the streets accompanied by percussionists, allegorical parades, and dueling knights. The small town turns its past into a lively present during the first two weekends of July.
Third Sunday of July – Venice is known for its romantic ambiance and marble mansions lining the winding canals, however, in July the famous City on the Lagoon turns its labyrinthine streets into a festival to commemorate the end of the black plague. The tradition of the Feast of the Redeemer in the region of Veneto dates back to 1577 and meld with the celebration of Holy Mass.
Restaurants and hotels organize special dinners for guests and members of the greater city to enjoy the traditions of the feast and admire the customary display of pyrotechnics over the city’s admired public piazzas. Boats parade down the Grand Canal commemorating more than 400 years of history and folklore associated with the black death. Dances, galas, and celebrations of all kinds continue deep into the night, with many stopping at dawn. Thousands of illuminated boats drift through St. Mark’s Basin. The city stops at 11.30pm to watch the 40-minute fireworks display. The gondola Regatta takes place on the Sunday of the celebration and is one of 10 major regattas held in Venice annually.
The weekend draws visitors from around the Veneto region and greater Italy, along with the regular group of tourists excited to explore the famous city. The Feast of the Redeemer is one of the oldest and most popular holidays in Venice, connected in the continued, quiet custom of the votive bridge leading to the Island of Giudecca and the Church of the Redeemer. Gondola chains form the temporary floating bridge, which reaches nearly 1,100 feet long.
July 14th to 15th – In Palermo, Sicily the 14th of July means the annual celebration of the city’s beloved Saint Rosalia, known locally as La Santuzza. In the early 17th century Rosalia saved the city from the plague after a number of her relics were discovered in Monte Pellegrino. The celebration reaches its peak on the 14th when thousands of people travel from around Palermo and the whole of Sicily to follow the procession led by a giant iron chariot carrying the statue of the patron saint.
The parade begins at the Palermo Cathedral and travels over one mile to the Foro Italico, the gorgeous seafront. Fireworks fill the night sky with colorful light. Restaurants celebrate the festival with traditional dishes serving local delicacies, such as:
A hunter found the relics of Saint Rosalia after having a dream about the cave in which her remains were laid. The hunter walked the saint’s remains around the historic city center three times before the plague was eradicated in Palermo. The cave on Monte Pellegrino is now a chapel dedicated to the saint who died in the 12th century. If traveling through Sicily between the 14th and 14th of July, plan accordingly with pre-booked transfers and accommodations.
Last Two Weeks of July – The street festival of Festa de Noantri turns the familial streets of Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood, one of the oldest quarters in the city, into a public celebration honoring the Blessed Virgin of Carmel. The eight-day event turns quiet parishes, convents, and monasteries into jubilant participants with the atmosphere of a local fair. The working-class district continues the tradition dating back to the 16th century, in which commemorates the myth when fishermen trapped a statue of the Madonna in their nets during a storm.
The image became an object of honor and worship, marked with a procession each year to inaugurate stalls, street vendors, street theater, and locals enjoying the food, wine, music, and dancing. The festival is popular with Romans and residents of the Trastevere neighborhood but does not draw the same types of crowds to the city as better-known celebrations or monuments around the country.
First Sunday in August – The Ligurian town of La Spezia stands at the edge of the sea on the first Sunday in August to watch 13 boats challenge one another in a race of rowers on the Gulf of Poets. A parade takes place on the Friday evening before the race. Each participating village decorates floats and wears stunning costumes and masks, similar to the styles of the masks of Carnival. The most creative costumes and choreography wins an award for the year, passing the accolades to a new winner the following year. The mayor leads the opening ceremonies the Saturday before races.
The contest pays homage to the maritime culture sustained by centuries under the rule of the Republic of Genoa. The 13 boats represent different borgate, hamlets or villages, around the bay, which include:
Local artists hand-make the boats, accounting for the specific details and complex characteristics of the designs in attempts to make the vessels agile and quick. The race lasts little more than 10 minutes, with boats traveling over a mile. Four rowers and one helmsman have traditionally filled the boat during the competition since the event’s first recording in 1925, when villagers used fishing boats.
The women’s race kicks off the competition on Sunday morning, followed by the juniors’ competition before the start of the men’s race in the afternoon. The event characterizes the passion and involvement of the local population in a celebration of its heritage as an integral part of the regional folklore. Paratroopers of the underwater special forces of the Italian Navy, the Comsubin, pay a unique homage to those who have died at sea minutes before the race begins. After the competition, fireworks decorate the night sky over the Tyrrhenian Sea.
August 15th – Ancient and Christian traditions combine during the commemoration of the day when Mary, the mother of Jesus, ascended to heaven. Next to Christmas, Easter, and New Years, Ferragosto is the most important holiday in Italy. The original celebration of Feriae Augusti began in the year 18 BC. Roman citizens took time after the harvest to relax for a unique time of the year when the nobility mixed with laboring classes. Romans honored the gods associated with agriculture, the hunt, and the changing of the seasons.
The festival evolved from a month-long event to a two-week celebration to a single day festivity. As Christianity grew more prominent across Europe, people celebrated the day of Mary’s Assumption concurrently with the ancient festival, continuing a number of customs associated with Roman revelries. Italians gather with family and friends during the day, casting an ethereal quiet over cities and towns.
Night vibrates with a distinctive energy with restaurants open for celebratory meals and local governments lighting the sky with fireworks displays. Live dance performances embellish the squares of Rome focused on different varieties of dance each year. The Tuscan town of Montepulciano provides an historical pageant and fascinating historic games. Huge effigies parade through the streets of Cappelle sul Tavo in the region of Abruzzo, culminating in the images exploding with fireworks.
The entire country shuts down on Assumption Day, including shops, banks, restaurants, and transportation. August 15th is also the beginning of the Italian holiday seasons, when many locals of larger cities, such as Rome, Venice, and Florence, take their summer vacation to coincide with Ferragosta. Many shops, restaurants, and cafes catering to the locals close until early September.
August 29th – Pope Leo XIII erected a 23-foot tall bronze statue of Christ the Redeemer on Monte Ortobene in Sardinia on August 29th, 1901, ushering in the first celebratory procession. For over a century, residents of the small town of Nuoro in Sardinia have carried on the tradition of marching in the procession between the Cathedral and the statue atop Monte Ortobene, ascending to the top of the 3,133-foot tall peak on a more than three-mile trek.
The Christian ritual is rich in custom. 5,000 people wear colorful, traditional costumes from around the island. The procession starts at dawn when people gather in front of the cathedral while singing Sardinian songs. The procession moves up the hillside before the priest gives mass in front of the statue. Musicians play customary music in the streets of Nuoro and participants of the festival wear fanciful masks.
The long day ends with demonstrations and exhibitions performed in the amphitheater in the evening. Folk dancers compete against one another to attend the final night’s competition and delight visitors with unique movements showcasing the heritage of the quiet island. Buses travel to Nouro from the main cities of Cagliari, Olbia, and Alghero. Trains depart from Cagliari and Sassari. The festival is important for all of Sardinia and not just those in town.
Late August to Early September – The prestigious film festival in Venice was founded in 1932 and is one of the oldest film festivals in the world. Top filmmakers compete each year to take home the Golden Lion award. The festival offers discounts to patrons under the age of 26 or over 60.
Screenings are restricted to attendees over the age of 18. Vaporetti ferry patrons from the islands around Venice to Lido, the island on which the festival takes place.
The city remains open during the festival. Transportation by vaporetto, train, and bus remain consistent around Venice and the surrounding region of Veneto. Accommodations become scarce during the festival due to the influx of patrons and attendants filling available rooms.
September 2nd – The Historical Regatta honors pomp, prestige, and heritage each year in the grand city of Venice. Fishermen and locals of the lagoon have practiced the unique sport for more than a millennium. In modern times the challenging race has become a spectacle due to the famous water pageant held before the competition.
Tens of multicolored 16th-century–style boats fill the Grand Canal. Oarsmen dressed in period costume ferry the Venetian Doge and the Doge’s wife, alongside the highest ranking Venetian officials in a faithful reconstruction of Republic’s former glory.
The tradition dates back to the 13th century when the navy needed to continuously train and retrain their crew in the art of rowing. The most popular event is the Campionissimi su Gondolini, when the gondola boats speed down the Grand Canal racing to the finish line located in front of the Ca’ Foscari Palace.
September 7th – Residents of Florence dispute the origins of the Rificolona festival but continue the custom on the eve of the Feast of the Madonna each year. Whether founded in the depths of pagan tradition or formed with the help of the Catholic Church, Florence and select towns in Tuscany celebrate the festival with songs and brandishing colorful lanterns on sticks. Children dress in their nicest clothing and parade through the streets. The more religiously devoted visit the Basilica della Santissima Annunziata to light votive candles and pray to the venerated saint.
The modern-day procession takes place in the streets of Florence with locals carrying their paper lanterns and following behind the cardinal. A folk parade with traditional music and songs add to the ambiance created by the soft glow of the lanterns. Children love to participate in the procession and enjoy watching the light from lanterns swaying at the edge of their sticks. The lanterns have become objects of decoration, inspiring friendly competition to see who can craft the most original or ornate light. Workshops take place during the week before the festival for adults and children excited by the artistic endeavor.
The main procession travels nearly seven miles through the city between the Basilica of Impruneta and Piazza Santissima Annunziata. The customary blessing takes place in front of the basilica before the award ceremony for the best handmade rificolona. Lantern-lit boats decorate the Arno River on the following day, giving rides to couples, children, and families.
September 8th to 10th (Only in Even Years) – On even-numbered years the medieval town of Marostica, in the region of Veneto, teems with activity during a spectacular life-size chess game. The tradition began in the 1450s when two noblemen dueled in a battle of wits to win the hand of the Lord of the Castle’s daughter. The lord then made a giant chessboard after decreeing people would take the place of the chess pieces.
Townsfolk dress in black or white to represent kings, queens, bishops, and other pieces, including using real horses in medieval apparel to signify the knight. At the end of the original match, the daughter of the local lord placed a candle in the tower to signify to the citizens she was happy with the winner of the match. The first reenactment happened in 1923, with the second reenactment taking place in 1954.
The games have taken place every-other-year since then, with people, especially ardent chess fans, arriving from around the world to witness the spectacle. Participants and enthusiastic visitors dress in 15th century costumes. Players give instructions to the pieces in Venetian dialect. 550 people take part in the game, which takes over two hours to complete, reenacting the original match from 1454.
September 8th to 10th – Parma Ham is the popular choice of snack in Italy’s world of fine cuisine and traditional flavors. In September the festival dedicated to Prosciutto di Parma takes place in the city of Parma in the region of Emilia-Romagna over 10 days and features exhibits, demonstrations, and limitless samples for a gourmet experience championed by experts and enthusiasts. Factories of note reveal their recipes to consumers and the secrets to their curing process.
Restaurants, hotels, and bed and breakfasts add to the ambiance with select, seasonal menus showcasing the favored cut of quality cured ham. The dates change annually but continue in the month of September. Vendors provide a variety of over 1,000 different types of cured ham to highlight the 10 million Parma hams produced each year from the 164 companies across the region. Some of the recipes to produce and cure the meat has changed over the years, but the methods the different companies use has remained unchanged for 2,000 years, utilizing the leg of a prized Italian pig and a pinch of sea salt to begin the curing process.
September 16th – The story William Shakespeare made famous about the two young lovers of Verona has a deep history shaping the romantic ambiance of the city of Verona in the region of Veneto. Shakespeare’s tale brought the star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet to the English-speaking world, however, the story was told numerous times before in Italian, including Historia Novellamente Ritrovata di Due Nobili Amanti (The Newly Found Story of Two Noble Lovers), by Luigi da Porto, and an earlier story known as Mariotto e Ganozza, by Masuccio Salernitano.
Legendary Italian poet Dante Alighieri mentions the grief shared by two families of Verona during the domestic quarrels of the Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Juliet has become an ambassador Verona and a symbol of romance, drawing visitors excited to pay their respects to the heroine of love through visiting the family home or writing letters to Juliet, which volunteers in the association of Juliet’s Club answer each year. Historians and literary aficionados believe the story of Romeo and Juliet represents the life of Giulietta Capuleti, who was born on September 16, 1284. The city recreates medieval life to celebrate their famous daughter and her legendary love.
Juliet’s Club helps organize the festivities each year to take place in Piazza dei Signori and the Cortile del Mercato Vecchio. Artists and artisans showcase their handmade creations focused on the theme of love and romance. Musical and theatrical performances capture the imagination and inspiration of affection. Guided tours follow the footsteps of Juliet through the city, including a visit to the heroine’s childhood home and family tomb.
The third Sunday in September – Although Siena’s Palio is the most famous horse race in Italy, the Palio in the town of Asti, located in the region of Piedmont, holds the title of the oldest bareback horse race in the country, in a tradition dating back to the 13th century. The games and pageantry begin on the Thursday before the race. Flag-bearers march through the streets with marching bands and colorful garments representing their respective neighborhoods.
The race has taken place in the triangular square of Piazza Alfieri since the late 1980s. The race was meant to coincide with the feast day of the town’s patron saint, San Secondo, who was martyred on the 30th of March, 119, however, the first record of the race in Asti dates back to 1275. The race returned after a 30-year absence between the 1930s and 1960s to mark the 1000th anniversary of the Marquisate of Montferrat and the eighth centenary of the Lombard League. 14 villages took part in the initial celebration and drew over 100,000 spectators from around Italy.
You must purchase tickets ahead of the games if you want seats in the grandstands surrounding the piazza. Admission to the central area is free but fills quickly. The games are not a secret but are far-less known and much less visited than the races of Siena.
September 19th – The city of Naples, located in the region of Campania, takes the feast day of the city’s patron saint very seriously, and celebrates with prayer and processions near the Duomo of Naples. San Gennaro was a bishop and martyr in the 4th century. The devoted follower became a priest at 15 years old and bishop of Naples by the age of 20.
Legend states the priest died while visiting imprisoned Christians in Rome. A woman gathered the coagulated blood of the saint and returned it to Naples where it liquefied eight days later. Devout Catholics travel to the cathedral on the feast day to witness the “Miracle of the Blood,” a belief that the saint’s blood liquefies on his feast day each year. Thousands of people visit the Piazza del Duomo on the feast day to view the miracle. The religious ceremony upholds custom and heritage when the cardinal removes the vials of blood from the chapel. If the blood liquefies, San Genaro has blessed the city. If the blood remains coagulated, it is in an omen for Naples and Italy.
Church bells ring in praise of the saint if the blood liquefies. The cardinal brings the celebratory action into the piazza to allow all who gathered a view at the blessing. The vials remain on the display in the altar for eight days before being returned to the chapel. A procession follows the ceremony through the streets of Naples’ historic city center to the church of Santa Chiara. Vendors set up stalls in the streets to sell food, candy, toys, and trinkets in honor of the day.