Photo by: Georgette Jupe-Pradier.

Easter and Spring come to Italy in great style this year. John Bensalhia lists some of the best known events and festivals to grace March...

One of the most traditional months in the Italian calendar is March. It's a month that honours traditional figures such as San Giuseppe and Julius Caesar, and this year is doubly special since Easter falls on the last weekend of March. So with Spring waiting in the wings, there's a sense of sunny optimism among this month's list of things to do. March on!

CELEBRATE THE WOMEN'S DAY FESTIVAL

FESTA DELLA DONNA - 8th March, Throughout Italy

Coming two days after Mother's Day, Festa Della Donna sees Italy celebrate Women's Day. It's a day that allows women special deals in restaurants, clubs and sightseeing locations such as museums. Sometimes lower cost – and sometimes free entry is open to all women on 8th March! Throughout Italy, there are also concerts and events to mark the day.

The 8th of March was selected by the Union of Italian Women in 1945 as an apposite date to celebrate Women's Day. This was influenced by the Bread and Peace Strike in Russia, which resulted from the Russian Revolution and the First World War in 1917.

It's also a day that embraces the oncoming Spring season as a notable tradition is for men to buy a Mimosa flower for the women in their lives. Wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers, grandmothers, aunties – they can all look forward to receiving a mimosa flower or two which they can display with pride. You can find out more here.

GET A FLAVOUR OF FLORENCE

PITTI TASTE FLORENCE - 12th - 14th March, Florence

This event showcases the best quality food and drink as around 330 companies come to Florence to present a myriad of products, presentations and ideas.

The respective events will be taking place at various locations in the region and will span a good cross-section of food and drink. You can go on the trail of rice, come down with a Cocktail Fever or learn all about the Truffle Revolution menu.

In addition, you can also learn and sample the best in pasta, oils and natural bio wines. There will also be a jazzy flavour at the Four Seasons Hotel which plays host to one of the many Fuori di Taste events (complete with “jazz mood”). And if you wish to buy any of the featured products, then a special Taste Shop can happily oblige. Find out more details here. 

HAIL CAESAR

REMEMBERING JULIUS CAESAR ON THE ANNIVERSARY OF HIS DEATH - 15th March, Rome

Rome remembers one of its most famous rulers on the 15th of March. This is the day on which Julius Caesar met a tragically early end in 44 BC, and it's the event that inspired the oft-quoted saying: “Beware the Ides of March” from the play by William Shakespeare.

In particular, the Roman Forum marks this occasion with the traditional laying of flowers at the ruins of Caesar's temple. It's a reflective and touching event that is remembered with great class every year on 15th March.

There are other events to mark the legendary leader, including a re-enactment of the events leading up to his untimely demise and a marathon run held in his honour.

RAISE A GLASS TO ST PATRICK

IRLANDA IN FESTA – Various dates c. 17th March, Throughout Italy

March is the month in which Ireland celebrates St Patrick's Day. And it's one of those occasions that's celebrated with gusto throughout the world – including Italy!

Irlanda In Festa takes the St Patrick's Party and celebrates it with considerable style in regions such as Bologna, Rimini and Florence. It's a celebration that isn't just confined to the 17th of March. The period of festivities can range between the 16th and the 20th of March, with a run of special initiatives planned.

Parties, concerts and festivals are organised – with performances planned using traditional Celtic style musicians. Of course, plenty of food and drink will be on tap – including the odd pint of Guinness! Talking of which, there are some good Irish-themed pubs in Italy which will be marking the occasion in regions such as Rome and Bari. So wherever you are, don't forget to raise a glass! More details here.

REMEMBER SAN GIUSEPPE

FEAST DAY OF SAN GIUSEPPE - 19th March, Throughout Italy

March this year contains a number of national holidays in Italy including Easter and also, the Feast Day of San Giuseppe (or St Joseph).

This national event takes place on 19th March, and marks a man, who among other things is a symbol of compassion, kindness, the Patron Saint of Sicily, and of course, the father of Jesus. With Spring almost upon us, it's apt that this saint is connected with harvests. It's said that people would pray to St Joseph for abundant crop levels while others would also kneel and pray before his icon or statue to ward off famine.

As you'll see in the link, Zeppole is one of the traditional foods eaten on this day. It's a delicious mix of pastry, custard and sugar (topped off with a cherry). It's also customary to eat sfinge (a pastry akin to a cream puff) on this day.

Other lucky foods include lemons (and in fact, any potential brides to be are looking for a husband, then it's said that taking a lemon from the altar will help them accomplish this aim) and Fava beans. These kinds of bean are said to be the only types that survived a drought in Italy during the Middle Ages. On that subject, it's also believed that St Joseph saved worshippers from that drought through God.

Another notable food custom is to eat dishes with breadcrumbs in it (the breadcrumbs are said to signify both sawdust – in acknowledgement of Joseph's background as a carpenter – and also dry earth eaten during the time of the drought. There is also the setting of Tavole di San Giuseppe (the Table of St Joseph). Tables are laid and bear various types of food and drink. It's a particularly heart-warming tradition as in different areas, the poor and the homeless are invited to choose foods from the table – with whole neighbourhoods also coming together to celebrate with the cream of local food and drink.

PRIZE THE PALIO

PALIO DEI SOMARI - 19th March, Torrita di Siena

One notable event to take place on the Feast Day of San Giuseppe is the traditional donkey race, Palio Dei Somari.

Held in San Giuseppe's honour, the race, in fact, has only been a regular event since 1966. It's the grand finale to a week's worth of celebrations in the region. During this time, local restaurants provide the best in the local cuisine, and in addition, special ceremonial dinners are held for the competing Contradas of Torrita di Siena. Each Contrada has respective colours, mascots and coat of arms – with the race itself making for a suitably memorable event to mark the Feast Day of St Joseph.

EXPERIENCE THE UNOFFICIAL NEW YEAR OF FLORENCE

FEAST OF THE ANNUNCIATION – 25th March, Florence

On 25th March, the unofficial New Year of Florence is celebrated with considerable panache.

The Feast of the Annunciation marks the traditional Florentine New Year and the day of the 25th includes a special parade that is held between Palazzo Vecchio and Piazza Santissima Annunziata. Among the line-up are medieval costumes and music performances, with a particularly striking concert taking place at Piazza Santissima Annunziata in the evening.

Legend has it that the creator of the Annunciation painting found one morning that his previously incomplete work of the Virgin Mary had miraculously been finished – complete with the face of Mary. And since then, this image has played a key part in the celebrations, with Florentines paying tribute.

EASTER TIME

CELEBRATE EASTER, 25th - 28th March 2016, Throughout Italy

This year, the Easter holiday comes early all over the world. Between Good Friday on 25th March and Easter Monday on 28th March, Italy will once again provide one of the most spectacular Easter celebrations witnessed across the globe.

Italy prides itself on striking the perfect balance between religious commemoration and memorable festivities. One of the best known Good Friday processions occurs in Chieti in Abruzzo – a common tradition in this procession is to have 100 violinists play Miserere by Selecchi. Meanwhile, the Enna procession in Sicily is attended by over 2000 friars. The cornerstone religious event at Easter is, of course, Sunday Mass at St Peter's Basilica during which the Pope gives his blessing and leads the procession called the Stations of the Cross which remembers the 14 stages of the Passion of Christ.

Easter is a time of maintaining traditional festivities – these include Sulmona's  Madonna che Scappa in Piazza. This takes place on Sunday 27th March and includes the customary change in colour of the Virgin Mary's costume. The woman selected to represent the Virgin Mary will attend the Piazza's fountain, clad in black – but when the symbolic release of doves into the sky occurs, the black costume will become green.

The traditional Scoppio dl Carro also occurs on Easter Sunday in accordance with tradition. The Explosion of The Cart involves the eponymous cart making its way to  Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Following Easter Mass, the cart (which bears fireworks) is then set alight.

Easter Monday continues the celebrations with all kinds of events, traditions, games, music and dancing. It caps off a long weekend of Easter events in Italy that successfully combine festivities with a time to reflect on its real meaning. More info can be found here.