From wild Saint’s Day festivals to the best way to travel, when it comes to cultural experiences Italy delights, moves and stuffs full of food any willing participant.
1.The aperitivo bar crawl
We’ve all been told that the aperitivo is a couple of drinks and few snacks intended to ‘prepare’ you, or whet your appetite, for a big dinner. Any Italian, however, will show you that the true aperitivo means bar hopping all night and returning home merry and decidedly full from so many free tramezzini. Try the Venice bacari tour, a crawl of its atmospheric local pubs, for a really magical night.
Spine-tingling yet moving, some of Italy’s Easter processions are straight from the Medieval period. In the hill-top village of Castiglion Fiorentino in Tuscany, for example, several religious orders don black or white capirotes (pointed hoods covering the head and face) and silently process up and down the ancient winding streets after dark. Some walk barefoot, while others flash a sparkly trainer beneath their robes. They carry great wooden crosses and candles, and precious bejeweled statues of Christ and the Virgin with a neon halo. Even for the non-religious it is an extremely humbling and inspiring event to witness. Not to mention there are toddlers in mini hoods and robes!
3.A local festival
All towns have a patron saint, and many use their Saint’s Day as an excuse for a festival of complete excess. Towns small enough to still have one central piazza are best. All residents are out in style, in the local bar friends are having to help out the barman to get everybody served, the piazza is lined with piadina vans, and at 1 in the morning there’s a firework display to rival New Year.
If you want a true Italian dining experience you have to go to a local food festival. In a big marquee set with plastic tables and chairs, paper place-mats and litre carafes of wine, I have tasted food to rival an Italian nonna’s and had great, laughter-filled meals with friends. There are sagre of everything from snails to clams, and from the chestnut to the jujube berry. This website lists all the sagre in Italy by location and date (I’ve bookmarked the festival of fried pizza on 3rd August).
5.Carnival in Venice
As if it’s not enigmatic enough already, Carnival time transforms an already surreal city into a slightly dystopian fairytale. As night falls Venice becomes shrouded in Medieval revelry, revisiting a time when masking allowed residents to engage in illicit activities, for nobles to escape social restraints, and to feel completely free. Of course, you must don a mask yourself and feel the liberty in anonymity, complicity catching the eyes of other masked revelers. If you wander the dark streets away from San Marco you’ll feel the thrill of hearing footsteps and laughter echoing round corners and seeing a Harlequin or Plague Doctor popping out from a side street. For more tips on how to experience Carnival like a local click here.
6.Visiting a pilgrimage site
Sadly the long queues, metal detectors and great crowds of people rather detract from St Peter’s spiritual atmosphere, so try visiting the Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi or the Santa Casa (Virgin’s house) in the Basilica of Loreto for a truly uplifting experience. In Assisi you will be entranced by Giotto’s emotive frescoes, and you may see a barefooted pilgrim unaware of the snap happy tourists around. In the Santa Casa you will be moved by the way visitors touch the stone with such reverence.
7.A Vespa ride
The Vespa requirements are: pre 1980 and needing a lick of paint. The location is optional: you can weave smugly between frustrated cars in traffic jams in Rome; you can fly down the sun dappled winding roads of the Colli Euganei (and laugh as you struggle in slow motion back up); or you can sit behind a handsome Italian who will take you wherever you want…
You probably haven’t seen heels so big, make up so extravagant, and dresses so expensive since your high school leavers ball. Even in the sweltering heat of a Naples summer men will wear waistcoats, jackets and ties. Yet for all their flamboyant finery they manage to look classy. Be prepared for drinks before church, multiple dishes for each course of the dinner, a constant replenishing of alcohol, games for the bride and groom that include appropriately placed balloons and lots of whipped cream, and when you feel ready to go home the party is only just starting.