Autumn is a magical time of year in Italy, and nowhere more so than in Marino, a small hill town south of Rome, not far from the Pope’s summer residence in Castelli Romani. The people of Marino celebrate this harvest season in high style and we were thrilled to take part in their Sagra dell’Uva (Festival of Grapes), the first weekend of October. We arrived in this little town high above Lake Albano early in the morning, thinking we would have time for coffee and a wander before the famous festivities began. No chance! The town was already thronged with revellers, mass was booming out over the streets and squares from loud speakers inside the church. Parking was impossible and we felt late, at 11:00am! Lights were strung across the narrow streets, banners flew from balconies, the parks were filled with markets and everywhere, grapes, grapes, grapes! Guidebooks say this festival celebrates the triumphant return of local general Marcantonio Colonna after the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and indeed, we did get to see the spectacle of medieval costumes and flag bearers and horses, reenacting the general’s return. But the truth is, this festival is all about the grape harvest and the new wine! Stalls fill every square, serving wine for 1 euro, ciambelle (big soft quishy doughnuts) made with grape skins and sugar are handed threw the crowds, and everyone turns out to dance and drink and smile in the autumn sunshine. Every fountain, every statue, every doorway and window frame is decorated with bunches of grapes, grape leaves, sheaves of wheat and autumn flowers. The entire town seems full of good cheer (and good wine), with everyone enjoying the street food and music. The official celebration, with a procession of 500 costumed townsfolk, takes place mid afternoon and we had to laugh at the juxtaposition of fiercely handsome Carabinieri officers in their sharply tailored uniforms, holding back the laughing, swaying crowd, as the medieval players (often wearing Ray Bans and chatting on their cell phones) made their way up the main street, throwing their flags and blowing their trumpets. Only in Italy does it seem quite normal to watch a young man in red tights and a feathered hat, clutching an iPhone to his ear and gesturing wildly at his laughing girlfriend in her skinny jeans, jump off his battered scooter and run to find his place in the traditional centuries old parade, while his Nonna shouts from her window three floors up, asking has he eaten enough lunch! Undoubtedly the best part of the Sagra for all of us was the moment when the bells rang out across the town and the three main fountains suddenly flowed with wine — an annual event for the Marino inhabitants, but a wonderful sight for our uninitiated clients. Clutching our sturdy plastic cups (we had been warned), we swarmed the fountain with the hordes and managed to fill and refill our cups just enough times to make Marcantonio Colonna proud.
Festival season continues around Italy as the summer draws to a close and autumn approaches. One of the most fascinating and impressive festival in September is held on the 3rd in Viterbo as thousands of people gather to celebrate their patron Santa Rosa. The touching story of a young girl’s faith in the 13th century is commemorated by a day of banquets, parades, medieval costumes and ultimately the triumphant parade of the Macchina di Santa Rosa, a 30 metre high swirling metal structure weighing 5 tons and covered in candles and red roses. The medieval symbols of the lovely papal city of Viterbo, the fountain, the palm tree and the lion, are all represented on the enormous structure, which twirls its way towards the skies in a triple helix topped by nine angels holding the globe on which stands the statue of Santa Rosa, reaching to heaven. After darkness falls, we watch the traditional ten teams of ten men dressed in symbolic white with red sashes line up after their blessing in the church. Eery silence falls as they prepare to carry the huge flaming tower, glowing ruby red and gold, through the narrow winding streets of the beautiful medieval centre of Viterbo. Fifty thousand people line the streets and fill the grandstand erected in the ancient square to see the Macchina rise above the buildings and sway precariously on the shoulders of the teams. Incredibly, it arrives in the square without toppling over, crushing hundreds and setting fire to the town. This seems miracle enough! There is a fanfare of music and suddenly the tower erupts in a shower of blood red rose petals, fluttering through the darkness and the glittering candles, to the cheers of the crowd, all jostling to catch a petal. Somehow, the amazing feat of strength, bravery and beauty affects everyone in our party and we all laugh and hug as we try to capture petals for ourselves. As the Macchina wends its way back to the church and the crowd disperses, we are delighted by the happiness so evident all around us, the mood being one of celebration, with no one rushing to find their car or make their getaway. We stop in an enoteca whose old wooden cellar doors are flung open into the night and we are welcomed by the local crowd who cheerfully help us nudge our way to the bar for glasses of wine. As we nibble salumi and cheese and clink our glasses with the smiling crowd, we all agree that Santa Rosa must indeed have been, like her Macchina is now called, a Fiore del Cielo — a Flower of Heaven.
The Feast of the Assumption on the 15th of August is always a cause for celebrating in Italy. And nowhere does it better than the tiny village of Trevignano on the shores of Lake Bracciano. The town prepares for the festival for weeks in advance and, on the day, everyone is out in force, dressed in their finest with all the family in tow. Little restaurants along the lake shore are booked days ahead for the coveted tables on the water with the best views of the evening’s main event. Early in the day mass is held in the flower bedecked parish church, La Chiesa di Santa Maria Assunta, and it is indeed the Holy Mother’s special day. The church’s most beloved icon, the beautiful painting of the Madonna in Gloria, is removed from the church, paraded through the town with priests, altar boys, incense and songs. She is then carefully handed aboard the boat chosen to transport her onto the lake. The moment everyone has waited for arrives, as diners and crowds lining the lake shore under twinkling lights strung in the trees, suddenly hear the distant incantations of the village priest across the water. Slowly boats appear in the darkness, covered in candles, lights, flowers, flags and ribbons, accompanying the unbelievable sight of the Madonna’s boat, which seems to glide invisibly along the water supporting its treasure under a massive arch of colorful neon swirls. As the floating procession makes it way along the shore, the priest chants, people genuflect, singing breaks out here and there among the crowd and cheers and toasts with prosecco accompany the Madonna on her journey. The festivities continue with a jolly fair on the promenade, games, rides, more treats to eat and drink and then the crowning glory of the event, 20 minutes of fantastically noisy, sparkling pyrotechnics light the midnight sky and draw yet more cheers from the crowd. Even the youngest babies are still out and about til the early hours of the morning, celebrating the exuberant spirit of this touching ritual.
Taking a detour on our way to Tuscany, we experienced the glories of the natural thermal springs that are scattered across this part of italy. Following sketchy directions and vague road signs, we arrived in a clearing just outside the small village of Saturnia. Seeing cars dotted through a small field, we parked and heard the sound of falling water as soon as we got out of the car. A short stroll along the dusty foot path through the hedgerow brought us to the spring and what a sight it was! A spectacular tumble of frothy green and white water burbling and sloshing over smooth white limestone rocks. People of all ages were up to their necks in the little pools amidst the falls and the heartier were happily swimming against the current or treading water in the wider basin at the bottom of the springs. It’s true, there is a definite tang of sulphur in the air but the beauty and surprise of this magnificent spot, filled with people who had strolled in to enjoy it just as we had, was too tempting to resist. We made a dash for the car, a sneaky change into swim suits behind a convenient bush, and we were soon wallowing away in the silky, milky, luscious warm water . More proof for the old adage, “the best things in life are free.” A reviving lunch in the fine old square in the village was a bit more costly than the spring, but the superb quality of the delicious food and the kind and courteous attention of the charming maitre d’ were more delightful, unexpected surprises in this out of the way spot. We had to drag ourselves back to the road and back to the originally intended destination! We will certainly return to the springs, next time without our silver jewellery — who knew the tarnishing properties of sulphur!!
Summer nights in Rome come blazing to life on the Isola Tiberina. The winter quiet of the little island, where plague victims were kept centuries ago, disappears in an explosion of lights and music with the annual summer festival. Tonight we had the great fun of introducing a dear friend to this fabulous display of Rome’s never ending ability to move with the times. Pop up restaurants, outdoor cinemas, cool elegant modern bars with enormous inviting white sofas spring up under the bridges and along the banks of the rushing waters of the Tevere, filling the summer nights with noise and laughter and glamour. The “bancarelle” (individual stalls selling everything from jewellery to scarves to sea shells to vintage road signs) draw passing trade from the happily strolling crowds of people, too hot to stay inside, too much fun to go home! Despite an early flight the next morning and our sworn promises to get our friend back to her hotel at a decent hour, we gave in to temptation and cruised the island on foot til the early hours, eating drinking and shopping the night away!
Summer mornings in the ruins of the ancient port of Ostia are worth the heat. School holidays gave us the perfect opportunity to take a car load of our university and high school kids out to this vast and beautiful site under the umbrella pines. With the sea just visible on the horizon, we spent a fun and photo filled morning imagining life in a toga in what was a bustling city of commerce early in the 1st century. No matter how many times we visit this evocative place and climb to the top of the amphitheater, we always find something new to delight us. Today it was the murals from the year 150 in the old thermal baths. Truly hard to believe how many eyes have looked and smiled at these simple, lovely paintings. And the joy of running after lizards in the long grass and playing statues on the empty pillars always makes the day so much more fun!
Now for the usual squabble over lunch; Clarissa’s favourite trattoria in the medieval village “with the nice Granny,” Vanessa’s “plastic chair terrace” at the beach with the amazing fried anchovies or the parents’ choice — a civilized meal at the elegant marina on the river……. I won’t say who won, but rest assured we ate well!!
Just back from a fabulous night out with clients, taking in Cavalleria Rusticana on the outdoor stage at Terme Di Caracalla. It was a privilege to enjoy this most Italian of operas with a fun, knowledgeable and passionate couple from the USA. Dressing up for the event added to the drama of the evening and a late night bite to eat got us all deep in conversation about wine exports and modern dance. We ended the evening with a leisurely drive through the empty streets surrounding the Forum and the Colosseum, the jovial conversation fading to sighs as we all took in the timeless beauty of the famous sites in the glow of the early hour street lights. One of those perfect nights in Rome, shared with clients who magically turned into friends.