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OPINION & ANALYSIS

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
Italian families spend Ferragosto at the beach in San Vito Lo Capo, northern Sicily. Photo by ludovic MARIN / AFP

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.

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FOOD & DRINK

How Italy’s farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

As traditional crops fail, a rising number of farmers in southern Italy are turning crisis into opportunity by cultivating everything from avocado to ‘chocolate fruit’ and coffee. Silvia Marchetti looks at how the landscape is changing.

How Italy's farms are turning to exotic fruit as temperatures rise

We’re all accustomed to seeing the Italian countryside characterized by ancient olive groves and vineyards, but a change in the rural landscape is occurring.

If you drive across southern Italy today you might be amazed to find exotic fruit plantations alongside the usual lemon and orange trees.

In the regions of Puglia, Calabria, and most of all Sicily, a rising number of farmers are adapting to climate change; or rather, they’ve learned how to exploit the impact of rising temperatures and have embraced non-traditional, non-indigenous fruit species.

They now grow bananas, mangoes, papayas, passion fruit, finger limes, pomelos and avocados, alongside lychees and even cocoa beans and coffee, replicating what is being done in tropical areas.

Sicilian bananas are popular among consumers in Italy. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I remember the first time I discovered and tasted a Sicilian black sapote: Italians call it ‘chocolate fruit’ and I love this weird persimmon that has a soft, dark Nutella-like pulp easy to spread on a slice of bread or scoop up with a spoon.

I walked into the supermarket, spotted this weird-looking dark apple, and as I grabbed it the lady at the counter told me I was buying Sicilian produce, which made me happy twice over because it was delicious and I was helping the local agriculture.

But the greatest surprise was when I discovered that my much-beloved Italian kiwi was the first exotic fruit grown in Italy, since the 1970s, particularly in the area of the city of Latina, Lazio, where there is a top kind of variety.

OPINION:

According to the Italian farmers’ association Coldiretti, there are currently 1,000 hectares of exotic fruit estates in Italy. The number has tripled in the last few years. 

And the great news is that Italians are eating more and more of their own exotic fruit with an annual consumption of 900,000 tonnes.

This ‘fruit revolution’ is good news in terms of cutting food miles and imports from tropical countries, while at the same time reducing the amount of pesticides we eat after they are used in transporting fruit to Italy.

The Italian plantations are still niche and experimental, so farmers are lobbying and campaigning to get extra funding from the state to help them really take off.

I think they do deserve help for the huge efforts they are making in transforming Italian agriculture. 

The ‘tropical experiment’ has been a real success so far and the farmers I spoke to are super satisfied with their results.

Sicilian farmer Rosolino Palazzolo shows off one of his coffee plants. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The Palazzolo brothers are two Sicilian farmers growing bananas, little bananas dubbed ‘bananito’, mango, passion fruit and papayas on the warm coast near the city of Palermo. They’re leading producers of tropical fruits which they ship across Italy and even abroad, and have seen demand for their made-in-Sicily produce grow over the last few years.

“We must thank this superb patch of land where the sea wind acts as a natural balm. We are extremely careful in that we don’t stress our plantations and have adopted a green approach”, says Rosolino Palazzolo. 

There are of course many challenges: first of all making sure that the fruit seeds, which come from the origin countries in South America or Asia, actually grow on the Italian soil. That is why many of these farmers start planting the seeds in a greenhouse and then once the plants start growing, transfer them onto the open-air terrain. 

Another important aspect is that most of this exotic fruit is organic so there’s no use of pesticides or chemicals.

Rosolino says they heal their tropical trees, when needed, with other plants and herbal remedies by applying so-called agro-homeopathy. 

He says Italian customers are much happier to buy Italian exotic fruit than the produce imported from abroad; they trust the domestic origin because it is easier to trace.

Rosolino Palazzolo holding his coffee seeds. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

The last time I visited Mount Etna near Catania I could actually spot the yellowish plantations of avocado grown on the volcano’s black flanks where past lava flows of massive eruptions have made the soil extremely fertile.

This summer along the coast between Rome and Naples I discovered a small farm that grows finger lime, which is considered quite luxurious and elite, as well as being extremely expensive. 

It’s even called ‘lemon caviar’ and is used by top restaurants to prepare fresh fish dishes, usually it is sprinkled on top of raw shrimp as a substitute for ordinary lemon.

If temperatures continue to rise and we cannot stop disastrous climate change, at least this is one local positive: eating ‘homemade’ Italian papayas and bananas. And who knows what next: perhaps coconut?

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