8 Things You Need to Know About Ferragosto
The month of August has finally arrived, and in Italy, this is the season that many people have been looking forward to since the year started (or maybe even since LAST August). This is mainly because August 15 officially marks the beginning of the summer vacation period, and everyone gets at least a day off, so on this day, even stores and establishments that don’t normally close usually do so as the owner and staff all go off on their own holidays. This changes the usual rhythm of activity in cities and towns, and for visitors who aren’t aware of the significance of the date, it can cause quite a surprise waking up to an empty city. So to help everyone out, here are the eight things you need to know about Ferragosto!
First, a bit of history…
The tradition was already in practice since ancient times.
That’s right, Ferragosto used to be an ancient Pagan holiday that lasted for the whole month of August. It was a period of rest after the hard work of harvesting and ploughing the fields in preparation for the next planting, and even the animals got a day off as they were rested and decorated with garlands of flowers. During this time, people also prayed to deities representing fertility (usually the goddess Diana), and held celebrations such as horse races in their honor.
It was later turned into a Catholic holiday.
As with a lot of pagan traditions, it was later translated into a Catholic celebration. Instead of lasting the whole month, though, the date of August 15 was declared as a day for commemorating the Virgin Mary’s Assumption into Heaven. A lot of places in Italy still maintain this religious association with the date.
Ferragosto is how it is today mostly because of fascism.
The habit of taking a trip out of town for a short vacation during Ferragosto became a thing thanks to Benito Mussolini and his regime. During the mid-1920s, his administration organized hundreds of trips that were aimed at making vacations accessible and affordable for the middle and lower classes. They set up the “People’s Trains of Ferragosto” which offered train tickets at heavily discounted prices, and gave people a choice between one-day trips (for those who want to visit nearby areas) and three-day trips (for those who wish to go to places more than 100km away), during which passengers would bring their own food with them. Fast forward to this year, and though Mussolini is long gone, going on a road trip and packing picnic food during mid-August remained.
Now on to the present day Ferragosto…
Chiuso per Ferie: Ferragosto is a bank holiday.
As mentioned earlier, a lot of establishments may end up closing down on August 15, so if you’re on vacation in Italy on this day, double check your itinerary to make sure that the places you wish to visit are actually open, and expect banks, museums, pharmacies, and convenience stores to be closed, all with the sign “Chiuso per Ferie” (“Closed for holiday”) at their doors.
A lot of the more industrial-type cities will look like ghost towns.
If you’re a in a place such as Turin or Milan where there aren’t exactly any beaches or mountains and where people usually just work or go to school, expect a lull. At this time, people usually take a trip either to out of town resorts, or they simply visit friends and family in the next town or province. Either way, nobody’s home. On one hand, this is a great time to take quiet walks around the city, on the other hand, you may also want to have a back-up plan for the day in case you’d like a bit more activity.
While industrial cities are quiet, over at beach, lake, and mountain resorts, activity will be at full swing as hotels and restaurants accommodate the influx of visitors for that day (or week). Expect a crowd, busy establishments, and quite a lot of partying. Depending on where you are on that day, there may also be festivals, concerts, and fireworks! So if you happen to be within range of one of these hotspots, do as the Romans do and join the festivities!
Transportation will be crowded or fully-booked.
If you’re going to join the holiday-makers, though, you might want to book your transportation well in advance, whether by train, plane, or bus. Because, yes, everyone is going the same way as you are, and if you’re not careful, you may end up standing for hours in a bus as you make your way to the beach. If you’d rather stay put, though, you can also just grab your friends and head out for a quiet picnic at the park.
Ferragosto is actually quite a flexible date… so you should be, too.
Though August 15 is the official date to take a break, keep in mind that echoes of the ancient Roman tradition of celebrating for the whole month still live on… which pretty much means that the month of August is free game, and people can actually choose to have their holidays at just about any time within this month. So while some of the more crucial establishments such as banks would only close down on the 15th, don’t be surprised if you start seeing smaller shops start to shut down as early as the first week of August.
Those are a few of the things that you will have to keep in mind when touring Italy during the Ferragosto season, but most importantly, remember to uphold the spirit of this occasion: to relax and have fun while on your vacation in Italy!