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ITALY EXPLAINED

The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy

While summer holidays are important everywhere, Italy takes the tradition of le vacanze estive particularly seriously. Here's what to expect now that August has arrived.

The 7 signs that August has arrived in Italy
A tourist refreshes herself at a "Nasone" fountain in the center of Rome on August 12, 2020. - Western Europe has been sweltering through a heatwave, with temperatures soaring above 35 degrees Celsius (95 F). (Photo by Alberto PIZZOLI / AFP)

1. Cities are largely deserted

If you’re in a city or town, prepare for it to feel strangely empty away from the obvious tourist destinations.

In Rome, car journeys that once involved a half-hour battle through wild traffic become surprisingly quick and stress-free. And where are the crowds at your usual after-work drinks spot in Milan? Even the smallest towns will be noticeably quieter than usual.

READ ALSO: Ferragosto: Why the long August holidays are untouchable for Italians

This is because all sensible Italian residents have packed up and gone to the beach or the mountains for a month. Next year, you’ll know to do the same.

2. But beaches are packed

Italy was a nation of staycationers even before the pandemic, and in August it’s tutti al mare: everyone flees to the beach, or maybe the mountains, at the same time.

Expect resorts to be packed and hotels, Airbnbs and campsites to be fully booked, especially as international tourists return after two years of travel restrictions.

3. Shops have cheery ‘closed for holidays’ signs

Shop workers and owners take time off like everyone else and it’s very common for small independent businesses like bakeries, pharmacies and florists to close for up to a month.

Some will tell you when they expect to reopen, others just put a sign in the window saying ‘chiuso per ferie’ – closed for holidays.

4. The summer sales are (still) on

Those shops that do remain open – mainly large chain stores and supermarkets –  offer discounts throughout August to those dedicated shoppers who aren’t at the beach. Italy only allows two retail sales a year, and one of those runs through July and August.

5. Everyone you email is out of the office

Need to contact anyone urgently at work this month? If they’re in Italy, then too bad.

Office workers are also usually on holiday, and a great many offices close altogether for three or four weeks.

Forget about out-of-office email replies suggesting an alternative contact or that the person will be checking their email sporadically – they will be on the beach and whatever you want can wait until they are back.

This applies to banks and to any kind of government bureaucracy, and you may also have trouble getting medical appointments at this time of year.

There’s only one place to be in Italy in August, as far as many Italians are concerned. Photo by Giovanni ISOLINO / AFP

6. There are ‘red alert’ heat warnings in place

This summer has been an unusually hot one and Italy has already experienced several extreme heatwaves. But as we get into August temperatures will no doubt be high across the board, meaning the country’s health authorities put heat warnings in place on the hottest days and strongly advise people to stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the afternoon.

7. Every major road has a traffic warning

Italy’s state police make good use of the red pen when putting together the official traffic forecast for August. All weekends feature ‘red dot’ traffic warnings as people head off on holiday, or return home.

The final weekend of August, when people head home in time for il rientro (the return to school and work in September) is also best avoided.

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ITALY EXPLAINED

What’s a ‘scampagnata’ and how to do it the Italian way

It’s that time of the year again when Italians go on the so-called "scampagnata", otherwise known as "gita fuori porta" meaning a day trip outside of city ‘doors’. 

What’s a 'scampagnata' and how to do it the Italian way

It’s a tradition hailing back to a distant past. Every trip far from the urban center has always been an excursion of pleasure, a break from the daily routine. 

These scampagnate (‘wanderings in the countryside’) take place during the weekend when people indulge in detox time from work and it’s a sort of ritual that involves both families and groups of friends. 

You get to explore nearby pristine rural areas and discover amazing villages and sites, but above all it’s an opportunity – or rather a justification – to enjoy savoury, huge lunches in traditional taverns and trattorias with typical dishes. 

The period for such day trips starts exactly when summer ends, so when it starts to rain and the temperature drops, and runs throughout the entire winter.

When summer’s over Italians tend to be rather sad and gloomy, the beach joy is over and winter is coming. Autumn for them is just a preparation for winter so these trips are a way to shake up the dark days by bringing a dose of optimism and something to look forward to during the working week. 

MAP: The best Italian villages to visit this year

Italians are dead serious about scampagnata, it’s a sacrosanct treat. Foreign observers might think these involve picnics in parks; it may be so, but it is not the rule. 

These outdoor adventures as per Italian style are always very comfortable, laid-back and cozy. Scampagnate are never by train or public transport and the maximum amount of time spent driving in a car or on a motorbike is never more than 3-4 hours.

Departure is never too early in the morning and we still want to eat with ‘our feet under the table’ like my grandpa used to say, so forget paninos and camping-style omelettes. Unless a group of friends is into trekking, hiking or cycling it’s usually an easy-going, calm weekend experience that involves little physical activity. Nothing too adventurous, it’s all about having a good time – and eating. 

The preparation for the gite fuori porta can be complex and time-consuming as it’s a way to mentally escape from the office during the working day.

There are rounds of calls and text messages throughout the week to ‘vote’ for the specific place to visit and also for the restaurant. Ladies chat about how they will be dressing in a very cool way, showing off the new wintery clothes. 

Everybody proposes a place but then nobody has the courage to actually decide where to go so most of the week is spent debating the destination until the person most overloaded with work says ‘OK let’s go there. Basta.’

I remember once with my friends it took us two weeks to organize a day trip to the Park of the Monsters of Bomarzo near Viterbo, the problem wasn’t agreeing on the place but finding a suitable restaurant that could satisfy our palates. 

READ ALSO: 14 reasons why Lazio should be your next Italian holiday destination

The fact that an hour or so is spent walking around a ‘new’ hamlet, admiring a waterfall, going underground in an old well or visiting a new museum justifies the amount of calorie intake during lunch. Energy is also consumed buying gourmet products like honey, jams, ricotta and hams, or a pair of handmade gloves or porcini mushrooms and chestnuts at a food fair. Feeling like a one-day ‘blitz tourist’ gives you the illusion that you can still savor a short holiday near your home during a non-festive period. 

Rule number one is to be well equipped in case it rains or gets cold, if you happen to go up on the mountains an umbrella is a must as are scarves and heavier coats. The car must also be stacked with the most awesome music albums to enjoy along the ride.

It’s still a trip ‘on a budget’ as people don’t want to spend too much given scampagnate may be every weekend. If it’s a bunch of friends they split the cost of the fuel, parking, and the bar and restaurant bills alla Romana way (meaning everyone pays his or her share). 

The choice of the restaurant is key because eating out is the main driver behind the scampagnata

The typical lunch menu always has to feature antipasto all’italiana with all sorts of hams and cheeses, beans and bruschetta followed by pasta, meat and tiramisù. And of course tonnes of wine, which raises the question of who will be driving the car back home as that person will have to stay semi-sober.

So people vote on who the unlucky driver will be. After the coffee and the ammazza caffé (coffee-killer liqueur), it’s time to leave after a 2-3 hours long lunch. 

While the driver does his job the other members of the group go in a slumber in their backseats with their bellies full, feeling already a bit of nostalgia and dreading the Monday back-to-work routine. 

Often to prolong the beautiful excursion Italians tend to ‘tirare alla lunga’, to ‘stretch’ the pleasant trip and go home as late as possible.

Scampagnate can also turn out to be tough when it’s cold but just for the sake of sitting on a bench in the middle of a gorgeous piazza, munching on pancetta delicacies until the sun goes down, you endure even if your feet are freezing. 

The first one who says ‘OK let’s go home’ is a party pooper, the others frown because the scampagnata mood has just been killed. 

I find the gite fuori porta so typical of Italians who believe that even short journeys are a culinary mission. 

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