‘…. As The Romans Do’

Ferragosto is the national public holiday on 15th August that marks the height of summer. Like many traditions in Italy, the origins of this festival are Roman. The name is a corruption of ‘feriae augusti’, which translates as ‘the holidays of Augustus’, the Emperor who in the 18BC designated August as a period of rest following the strenuous labour of bringing in the harvest over the preceding weeks. During this period, working animals were also relieved of their loads and horse races were held as part of the celebrations.  Indeed, this is the origin of the world-famous palio that is still held in the Tuscan town of Siena on 16th August in much the same form as in Roman times, although it had to be cancelled again this year as its traditional rituals (and the crowds it attracts) did not conform with anti-Covid regulations.

August was already punctuated with festivals such as the three-day Nemoralia dedicated to Diana the Huntress, the Consualia to honour Consus, the god of the harvest, and the Vinalia Rustica to celebrate the forthcoming grape harvest. By unifying all these pre-existing jollities into one continuous holiday period, the Emperor’s gesture of largesse was consequently tempered with an element of practicality, not to mention a dash of politics by currying favour with the masses, who on wishing their masters ‘buon ferragosto’ would receive a small gift of money or food with which to enjoy the holidays. This tradition became so entrenched that during the Renaissance, the Papal States (of which Le Marche then formed part) made it obligatory.

Along with many other festivals of Roman origin, the Catholic Church soon muscled in on things and sought to Christianise these pagan festivities as early as the 5th century AD when it established The Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary bang in the middle of the feriae augusti.  Since then, 15th August has marked the day on which the Virgin is claimed to have ascended to Heaven at the end of her life on earth and is technically the reason why it is a public holiday in Italy.

In the first part of the twentieth century, the festival took on a more political flavour when Mussolini’s fascist regime began organising discounted trips for workers through its Opera Nazionale Dopolavoro (National Recreational Club), which was conceived as a means of competing with the Socialists in terms of looking after workers’ welfare. The initiative, known as ‘the People’s Trains of Ferragosto’, ran from 1931 to 1939 and gave the working classes the opportunity to take short trips to the seaside, the mountains or cultural sites – which is why present-day tourists are still able to visit museums, monuments and galleries on 15th August even though many other amenities will be shut. As it was aimed chiefly at city dwellers and workers, it turned Ferragosto from an almost exclusively rural affair into a festival for all the labouring classes and as such was effectively a fore-runner of modern mass tourism.

Another feature of the fascist era Ferragosto that has persisted is the picnic. As the People’s Train trips did not include meals, travellers had to bring their own food with them and this tradition has stuck. A protracted lunch all’aperto (in the open) with family and friends, preferably somewhere that offers some respite from the mid-summer heat, still forms an integral part of celebrations. And this is exactly how we spent the day, especially since Ferragosto this year coincided with the peak of the pitiless heatwave that has held us in its searing grip since mid-June. So with temperatures set to reach 38°C locally we headed up into the relative cool of the Sibillini Mountains for a picnic on the shores of the cobalt-blue Lago di Fiastra. By the time we had reached Sarnano, the self-styled ‘gateway to the Sibillini’, it was already well into the mid-30s. But within minutes of turning off onto the long, winding climb up towards Sassotetto (literally ‘rock roof’) the temperature began to fall. About half the way up we raised a cheer as the display on the dashboard finally dropped below 30°C, and continued to drop by another degree with every additional 100m or so of altitude. By the time we reached the summit (c.1100m), it showed just 24°C – cooler than most nights for the preceding fortnight – but as soon as the road started to take us down the other side towards the lake, the temperature began to climb again and was back to 30°C by the time we reached the normally sleepy lakeside village of San Lorenzo al Lago. Today, however, its narrow, winding streets were crammed with visitors to its Ferragosto farmers’ market selling an array of local pecorino cheese, lentils, sausage, ham and all sorts of truffle-based delicacies, and traffic was reduced to walking pace despite the frantic arm-waving and whistle-blowing efforts of the local police to keep things moving. Within a few minutes, though, the mayhem was behind us and we caught our first enticing glimpse of glittering turquoise further down the hill.

Most people remain on the through-road that runs parallel to the lake and provides easy access to the steep shale beaches along the eastern shore. But we headed left, over the bridge towards the small town of Fiastra and immediately turned off to our preferred spot at the southernmost end of the lake. Down a narrow, easily missed lane, clumps of mature trees cast dappled shade over a broad grassy bank that slopes gently down to the inviting water. Usually it is very quiet and, well hidden from the road, feels almost private. Today, though, it was teeming with people, for not only is it the ideal spot to spend the hottest day of summer, there is also a simple chalet-bar serving drinks, snacks and ice-creams and, more importantly on this particular day, a flat, shaded area equipped with several brick-built barbecues, a small food preparation corner and a collection of long trestle tables and benches. And even though it was only mid-morning, all of them were already crammed with large multi-generational groups setting out bowls of salad, cutting up slabs of bread, slicing cheese, threading meat onto skewers, lighting barbecues and generally just enjoying being together.

Somehow we managed to squeeze the car into the last remaining parking space and even to find a suitably socially-distanced spot to spread out our beach towels on the grassy bank where it was very much the same story: more groups of friends, families and couples, all of whom were setting out folding tables, chairs and parasols and unpacking elaborate picnics, their laughter, chatter and excitement making whole thing feel almost as festive as a Christmas dinner.  And even though it was just the two of us, as we laid out our own modest picnic, we still relished the feeling of being part of the festivities – all the more so in year when such celebrations have been in short supply – and of being part of a tradition stretching back over two thousand years. Not to mention spending a few hours in the deliciously cool mountain air and having a dip in a deliciously cool mountain lake.

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