Monday, August 15, 2011


Today is August 15, the Ferragosto holiday here in Italy.  It stems from an ancient Roman festival, feriae Augusti, literally the repose or vacation of Caesar Augustus, that was instituted about 18 A.D. to combine all the ancient holidays of the month into one extended period.  Perhaps the most important observance was to celebrate the grain harvest and the end of major agricultural labor.  (A similar sentiment is behind Lammas Day, August 1 in England and elsewhere, celebrating the first bread made with the new harvest.)  In Imperial times many festivities included horses and other draft animals now freed from their agricultural labors, often decorated with flowers.  The modern echo events with animals include the Palio dell’Assunta in Siena (August 16) and other less-well-known exhibitions and races around Italy.
As it was wont to do, the Roman Catholic Church adopted the pagan festival date of Ferragosto for one of its holy days, the Dormition and Assumption of the Virgin Mary (thus, Palio dell’Assunta).  So there are quite a few big church processions today in various cities where a large statue of Mary is carried through the streets.   Oddly enough, this is also the day sometimes associated with the story of the abduction of the Sabine women in legendary Roman times, which occurred after a mid-summer festival of Neptune. 
The Latin word feriae has become the Italian ferie and still means vacation days.  Ferragosto is a bit like the climax of summer vacation here, and nearly everything is closed, even many a small bar/caffè and gelateria, and there’s a long-weekend holiday (known as a ponte, or bridge).  But much of August and even some of July is likely to be combined with Ferragosto as businesses of all kinds close up completely and people head for the seashore or the mountains to escape the heat of mid-summer for up to a month.   I took these pictures this morning, but similar signs have been cropping up since late July.  Some are short and to the point, seemingly an afterthought as the steel grille rolls down.  Others are polite and invite you back.
This bar/caffè on via Oberdan is closed from the 4th to the 21st of August

This clothing shop cleared out all their old inventory before taking off.

This normally busy walkway on via A. Righi is deserted.  Even the 99 centesimi store is closed.

A furniture store.  They misspelled chiuso...

This farmacia at least tells you where else you can go.

No commitment for returning at this ristorante.

"Wishing everyone the best vacation, L'Ambasciata Calabrese
 will remain closed from 7 August until 21 August."
This trattoria features cooking from Calabria, in the far south.

Along with the typical heat of the season, the August holidays are a good reason to plan carefully if one is visiting Italy now.  It can be very disappointing to find that the universally lauded ristorante that was to be a highlight of your trip is closed for two or three weeks.  Even government offices, churches, museums and libraries may be unexpectedly chiuso (closed) or have odd hours.  Still, there are special events to be found, especially outside the urban areas.  Though the wheat harvest may be finished, the corn for polenta, the pomodori (tomatoes) and other crops still need attention and folks can’t just take off.  So many villages have a special open-air dinner one evening where local ristoranti, caffès, and vineyards provide the food and wine for a sumptuous but moderately priced convivial evening.  Fun but difficult to find in advance for travel planning.  I’ve read that some places still feature the traditional il piccione arrostito (roasted pigeon).
People who can’t get away take advantage of local parks for picnics and al fresco relaxation.  Last Friday we took a short bus ride south, beyond Bologna’s medieval wall, to hills where illustrious Bolognese used to have country villas.  One such property was given to the city years ago and is now Il Parco della Villa Ghigi, and includes acres of open grassland, orchards, vineyards and wooded areas as well as the decaying villa itself.   Although the parklands are beautifully maintained, with well-tended paths lined by fruit and nut trees (an abundance of ripe figs—yum), the unfortunate villa is in a critical state of semi-neglect.  The roof seems to be intact, the vines that once overran the back have been controlled, and the ground-floor windows have mostly been bricked up to minimize the risks of vandalism.  But it clearly needs a lot of work to bring it back to its past glory.

Looking north over Bologna from Il Parco della Villa Ghigi

Arcadian vista in the park.

Villa Ghigi east side and front.  Parts date from the 1600s.
Villa Ghigi rear entry to courtyard

Villa Ghigi interior ceiling
Pranzo: panino from Bar Impero and a pera and pesca from
il frutti vendolo.

Because it was such a beautiful day and because we’re suckers for old stuff, we took a 1 km walk up a narrow wooded road—with nice views of San Luca over on the next hill west (you remember San Luca, don’t you?)—to visit the simple monastery church of Eremo di RonzanoEremo means retreat or hermitage, and this place tucked away in the woods has been some kind of Christian religious community since at least the 12th century, though the Dominicans in the mid 1400s are responsible for the existing church, a mixture of Gothic and older styles with both religious and allegorical figures decorating the interior.

On the way to Eremo di Ronzano
Santuario di San Luca to the west.

"Oasis of protection for game.  Hunting and bird catching prohibited."
Chiesa at Eremo di Ronzalo

Interior of the 1460 church of Eremo di Ronzalo

15th c. fresco inside the church.

Vigne below Eremo di Ronzalo

Our Ferragosto holiday will be a quiet one since all our neighbors have gone elsewhere.  And though I’m not positive, it’s unlikely that we will have roasted pigeon for dinner tonight.  


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