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An Insider’s Guide to The Most Fascinating Festivals in Italy

Tourists come from all over the world to celebrate Carnavale in Venice and to watch Siena’s famous horse race, the Palio. Italy’s lesser-known festivals offer unique experiences of the essence of Italy. They range from the unconventional to the sublime. Here are some Italian festivals you will never forget.

Opera Extraordinaire

The Puccini Festival is a festival in Italy that takes place in July and August attracts 40,000 music lovers to the open air theater in Torre del Lago. The theater is on the lake that inspired much of the maestro’s music and near the Villa Mausoleum where Giacomo Puccini lived and worked. Each year, several of Puccini’s operas are performed by world-renowned opera singers and conductors. An extraordinary experience is arriving at the theater by boat across the lake, imagining the composer’s ears tuned to the lap of water, the birdsong, and the rushing wind.
Torre del Lago is less than three miles from the magnificent beaches of Viareggio on the Tuscan Riviera and 11 miles from Lucca, Puccini’s boyhood home. Lucca is a walkable city surrounded by medieval walls that celebrates its famous native son with daily concerts in an ancient, deconsecrated church. His home, now a museum, houses a piano Puccini played when he was a boy. On display is Turandot’s elaborate, original costume. Manuscripts, letters, opera scores, and other memorabilia are stored in archival drawers, and walls are covered with paintings of ancestors and photographs. On one wall, the Puccini family tree shows they were a musical family back to the 1700s.

Happy Birthday to Rome

Rome’s Birthday (Natale di Roma), April 21, is a city-wide party and exhibition celebrating the founding of Rome by Romulus in 753 B.C. Fireworks explode over the Tiber River, the city twinkles with torches and colorful lights, museums are free, and restaurants outdo themselves with Roman feasts. This Italian festival also includes a costumed procession, involving more than 2,000 gladiators, legislators, vestal virgins, and priestesses, starts and finishes at the Circus Maximus. Historical reenactments, including gladiator, fights can be seen in every ancient piazza.
Reserve a table at Spirito Di Vino for ancient Roman dishes made with fresh ingredients and served in an ancient Roman building. A favorite is pork shoulder prepared according to the recipe of Gaius Matius who was a friend and cook of Julius Caesar. To walk on a Roman street, ask to visit their wine cellar.

An Epic Food Fight

Ivrea in the Piedmont region of northwestern Italy is known for what may be Italy’s largest food fight, The Battle of the Oranges. In the three days leading up to Fat Tuesday, townsfolk dressed in medieval battle attire reenact the 12th-Century rebellion with citrus fruit instead of weapons. Participants of nine squads run through the streets hurling oranges or tossing fruit from “battle busses.” Each year, 500,000 pounds of oranges are splattered all over town. After the three days of carnage, one of the generals ends the war. A massive funeral for the slain is held on Fat Tuesday.
Spectators can wear a red hat to mark themselves as a bystander and noncombatant or stay safe from flying pulp by sheltering behind the nets that protect Ivrea’s buildings. Dessert lovers do not leave town without sampling the famed Cake 900, a chocolate cream sponge cake.
Surprisingly, Ivrea is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but not for its ancient history. The city was developed in the 20th-Century as a testing ground for Olivetti, the manufacturer of typewriters, mechanical calculators and office computers. UNESCO describes the city as “a model social project” expressing “a modern vision of the relationship between industrial production and architecture.”
Industrial advances have not erased Ivrea’s ancient piazzas and its skyline of stone towers and red-tiled roofs. The castle dates back to 1395 and has four stone towers and a large courtyard. It was used as a defensive post, a royal residence, and finally a prison until it was renovated in 1970 to host exhibitions and performances. The cathedral that dates back to the 4th Century A.D. is built on ruins of a Roman temple. Parts of the original structure survive, including the crypt. The church maintains most of its 12th Century Romanesque appearance.

Snake Handlers’ Parade

The small medieval town of Cocullo in the Abruzzo Mountains has an annual centuries-old festival celebrating St. Dominic whom locals believe protect them from wild animals and physical ailments. This Italian festival held in May is not for the faint of heart. It involves snake handlers competing from March to be named for catching the most serpents. Some snakes measure more than six feet long. They are kept alive and their fangs removed.
On May 1, following an early morning Mass in the town’s small church, locals ring a small bell using their own teeth to protect them against toothaches for the following year. Soil is blessed to be spread over fields as a supernatural pesticide and fertilizer. The wooden statue of Saint Domenico is taken out of the small church, and the snake hunters drape their snakes over the statue and his jewel-encrusted gold frame. The statue is paraded through the streets with the snakes writhing all over it in a procession that includes a brass band, clergy, and laypeople in traditional dress.
The few restaurants in Cocullo are booked by locals far in advance of the festival, but food vendors abound to feed the hoards of visitors. There are no reports of death by snakebite.

Venice’s Marriage to the Sea

On the last weekend in May, Venice celebrates its nautical prowess and closeness to the sea with processions of boats from St. Mark’s Square to the Port of St. Nicolo. The “wedding” ceremony dates back to the 1100s when a splendidly attired doge would ride an elaborately decorated boat and throw a wedding ring into the sea. The tradition continues with the mayor of Venice tossing the ring with these Latin words: Desponsamus te, mare, in signum veri perpetuique domini (We wed thee, sea, as a sign of true and everlasting domination).
In this Festa della Sensa teams of boats compete in river races, and thousands line the waterways jousting for a good view of the regattas and processions of boats and characters in historical costumes. The Festa culminates at the church of St. Nicolò, and a market of traditional foods and crafts is held in the nearby square.
Italy is known for its exuberant festivals, and one of the lesser-known Italian festivals could be the highlight of your European adventure.
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Jason’s Next Journey: Luxembourg, Germany, and Italy

Gearing up for our next big adventure in-country as they say.
We have some exciting insider looks coming your way while we’re filming our upcoming travel episode shorts and we’re getting really excited to share it with you. On this go round we’ll be visiting the duchy of Luxembourg, experiencing a river cruise on the Moselle and Main rivers through Germany, and capping it off with a visit to Italy where we’ll see Florence, Sienna in the heart of Tuscany, and the wonders of Rome.
Stay tuned, it’ll be a fast and furious good time.
For LIVE photos, video and updates, follow me on Instagram.

 

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Don’t Leave Italy Without Exploring Tuscany

When you think of Italy, Florence is probably one of the first places that come to mind. Of course, you have to see Florence, and so it seems does everyone else. Enduring crowds is part of the Florentine experience along with being stunned and amazed at its glorious art and architecture and the gleaming gold shops on Ponte Vecchio that spans the Arno River. When you need some breathing room, it is time to explore the less crowded treasures of Tuscany.

Siena

Siena, just 30 minutes from Florence by train, is an ancient hill town famous for the Palio, the centuries-old horse race in the shell-shaped Piazza del Campo. The yellow-brown buildings that line the campo gave the name to the color “sienna.” Walking the ancient streets, you can see neighborhoods defined by the different flags flying from buildings. Each neighborhood has its Palio team, and competition is fierce through the generations.
The green and white marble 12th Century Siena Cathedral is one of the best examples of Italian Romanesque-Gothic architecture. Its Gothic octagonal pulpit is supported by lions. Inlaid in the floor is a mosaic labyrinth where penitents walk contemplating their sins. Its Piccolomini Library has frescos by Raphael and other artists from the 1500s, and the ceiling scenes shimmer with gold.
You can take a bus from the train station to avoid the arduous uphill walk. Or, try the series of escalators that take you from the station to the center of the city in less than five minutes.

Lucca

Lucca, an hour train ride from Florence, is a walkable medieval city surrounded by 800-year-old walls. The walls are so thick, they are topped by a park with benches, large trees, and paths. A favorite pastime is walking or biking around the city on the walls. The old Roman forum is the main square now lined with shops and restaurants. Old signage must be preserved, so a pharmacy sign is carved in 16th Century stone above the entrance to a shoe shop.
The town is best known for its native son Puccini who composed many of his famous opera here. He lived in a mid-19th Century apartment that has been made into a museum filled with his memorabilia and showcasing costumes from some of his operas. In the apartment, his family tree, drawn on a wall, goes back to the 1700s and includes several musicians.
An ancient deconsecrated church has free musical performances nearly every night, many featuring the music of Puccini. The 1846 Belle Epoch style Antico Caffé di Simo, Via Fillungo 47, serves great cappuccino and fresh pastries, and also served Puccini and literary luminaries such as Ezra Pound. A piano sits where the piano Puccini used to entertain friends was placed. At night the café is a wine bar.
The cobblestone streets can get crowded during the day because it is a popular tour stop. However, the village has too few hotel beds for most tours to stay overnight. Laws keep the town authentic, and large hotels are not allowed. In the evening, Lucca is quiet and peaceful.
During town’s annual Puccini Festival, you can enjoy one of Puccini’s operas in the outdoor theater on the lake where he composed some of his music. You can park across the lake and take a boat to the opera. During the ride, you experience the watery and waterfowl sounds that inspired the maestro

Lucca’s Countryside

With a car, and it needs to be a small car, you can drive along narrow twisting roads up hills to the hamlet of Celle in Pescaglia to see the ancestral house where Puccini was born. The Puccini progenitor Jacopo was born here in 1712. The house contains original artifacts and furnishings including Puccini’s crib and the bed where it is rumored he was conceived. Celle’s two-block-long main street has a small restaurant serving the rustic Tuscan food Puccini would have grown up on. The restaurant overlooks a bucolic valley.
A hamlet near Vettriano has an 1889 theater constructed in a barn. It is the world’s smallest historic theater still in use. It seats 99 because one more seat would require the installation of fire safety features that would spoil the ambiance. The only way to reach its two tiers of balconies is through the roof. Seats are padded kitchen chairs that retain the character of the times when the townsfolk had to bring their own chairs. Contemporary performances include classical plays and concerts. Puccini attended a performance here, and the townsfolk were so honored, they sang to him. He ungraciously replied, “If I knew you were going to sing, I would have brought my rifle.”

Pietrasanta

Pietrasanta, which means “sacred stone,” is 30 minutes from Lucca. The village is dedicated to sculpture and, to a lesser extent, other arts. The Carrara marble quarries are close to the town and have been mined since ancient Rome. Michelangelo lived in this village while he was searching for the marble he needed for his masterpieces. The Church of Sant Agostino was built in the 14th Century and has been deconsecrated. It is now a museum showcasing contemporary sculpture. Walking around the small town and its gardens, you will see displays of sculpture in surprising places and doors to artists’ studios invitingly open. Visitors enjoy their espressos at outdoor tables in the main piazza with a view of the white marble 14th Century Duomo, or main church, that has a marble rose window dating back to the 14th Century and lunettes with scenes of the Life of Christ over the three portals. The Eno-Trattoria Da Beppino. Via Valdicastello Carducci 34, serves hearty Tuscan food and offers indoor and outdoor seating.

Viareggio

Viareggio is on the Tuscan Riviera. It was a medieval fishing village developed as a seaside resort area in the 19 Century. The tree-lined promenade has boutiques, upscale shops, discos, restaurants, cafes, and art galleries. Pine forests on both sides of town offer a green respite. The town is best known for its “furnished” beaches. With a one-day pass, you can have a place of your own on the sand furnished with a blanket, beach chairs, and beach umbrella. Changing rooms, lockers, and showers are available plus a bar and restaurant.
Adventurous travelers find there is more to Tuscany than Florence and vineyards. Exploring little towns, finding hamlets you have never heard of, and enjoying a beach day enrich the Tuscan experience.