With the month of May marking out the Spring season as a time of fun, colour and tradition, John Bensalhia looks at some of the best examples of Italian events and festivals taking place...
The month of May sees Italy celebrate the Spring in real style. Taking advantage of the local history and the glorious scenery, Italian regions can put on events and festivals that attract visitors from across the globe who want to be a part of a very unique experience.
May sees a line-up of Italian festivals that celebrate tradition in colourful, memorable fashion – from the town centres through to the city streets and from the beautiful countryside through to the rippling waters. So without further ado, let's see what's in store!
SAGRA DI SAN EFISIO (FEAST OF ST EFISIO) - 1st to 4th May, Sardinia
Cagliari, Sardinia begins the month of May with its annual tribute to its patron saint. St Efisio was initially assigned to combat the spread of Christianity by persecuting Christians. However, the legend says that St Efisio converted to the faith after seeing a shining cross in the sky and hearing a voice. St Efisio was ultimately beheaded in the year 303.
The turning point for this traditional feast arose in 1652 at the height of plague in Sardinia. The authorities made a solemn promise to St Efisio and vowed to take his statue from the location of his imprisonment to the beach of Nora, where he suffered his ultimate fate. The miracle happened as the plague subsequently ended.
To mark this miracle, the feast of St Efisio has been a regular fixture, and takes place over a four day timeframe in early May. The procession itself takes a statue of the saint from Cagliari to the Church of San Efisio on the Nora beach. Accompanying the statue on the parade are specially decorated ox carts and horsemen, providing a visually memorable sight. There is a real carnival atmosphere in the air, with additional sights and sounds from street performers, bands, riders and a Middle Ages ambience, thanks to the traditional dress worn by the visiting pilgrims.
CALENDIMAGGIO DI ASSISI – c. 6h to 10th May, Assisi
Back in the 14th century, two families battled it out for supreme power. The rivalry between the Fiumi and Nepi families is said to have lasted for more than two centuries.
That historical powerplay pre-empted Calendimaggio, an annual medieval celebration that takes place in the month of May in Assisi. It's a unique event that hinges on competition between two parties – the Upper and Lower districts of Assisi. The two districts compete against each other in a variety of areas, such as singing, dancing, theatre, archery and crossbow shooting.
Like a good number of other events this month, Calendimaggio takes visitors back to a purer, simpler age. Many of the Calendimaggio events are steeped in tradition, including the Blessing of the Banners ceremony, the Delivery of the Keys and the crowning of Lady Spring. Parades, shows and special medieval workshops add to the period feel, educating and entertaining visitors in equal measures.
WEDDING OF THE TREES - 8th May, Vetralla
Spring time is well and truly here! The freezing months of chattering teeth and dark nights are a dot on the horizon. The warm Summer months are waiting in the wings. Best of all, the flowers and trees are in full bloom with spurting leaves, petals and blossom creating a natural, visual marvel.
With that in mind, Wedding Of The Trees is one of the ultimate Spring celebrations in Italy. The event was first held in 1432 in Vetralla, and symbolically unites two oak trees, decorated in veils and flowers. The union signifies the care and protection of the local forests and the environment.
Augmenting the celebrations are musicians and bands, a free picnic for visitors, and that extra special touch of horsemen bearing bouquets of flowers of the Spring.
RING RACE OF NARNI - 10th May (TBC)
The Narni Ring Race is the cornerstone of a fortnight of celebration, 14th century style.
The event pays homage to Narni's first bishop, Saint Giovenale. It was first introduced in 1371 where it continued till the 17th century. It was only revived in 1968, and has been a regular fixture since then. Traditionally, it takes place on the second Sunday of May (which this year falls on 10th May).
The race pits competitors from the three districts of Narni (Fra Porta, Mezule and Santa Maria) in a contest to aim lances at a suspended ring. The competitors are dressed in traditional knight costume, riding in on horseback to evoke the 14th century feel.
Prior to the race on the night before is a historical procession, which heralds the race with a parade flanked by torches and flags. The historical flavour is boosted further by costumes and medieval food and drink which is served up in the local taverns.
FESTA DEI CERI (FESTIVAL OF THE CERI) - 15th May, Gubbio, Umbria
Regarded as the oldest Italian folk event, Festa dei Ceri honours the death of Bishop Ubaldo Baldassini who passed away in 1160.
The event revolves around a procession which honours Bishop Baldassini. The most striking aspect of the procession is the raising of the Ceri – three large wooden structures which are taken through the streets of the old town to reach their ultimate destination, the Basilica of Saint Ubaldo, located at the summit of Mount Ingino.
The procession draws a large number of visitors and spectators who can witness this sombre but highly memorable event. As well as the procession, the day also includes many celebrations including a traditional race.
INFIORATA DI NOTO – c. 16th - 17th May, Noto, Sicily
With Spring being a time for blooming flowers, this Sicilian Flower Festival puts a memorable spin on the traditional flower show over the third weekend of May.
The street of Corrado Nicolaci becomes a temporary home to a stunning selection of works of art – the difference being is that they are comprised of flowers! Budding artists take to the street on the Friday before the festival kicks off. They work with special organic soil to make an outline scene which is subsequently filled in with special flower petals to create an effect that is very much like a stained glass window.
It's an amazing sight and one that can be admired by visitors over the weekend. Alas, though, it's only a fleeting sight – as on the Monday, it's said that youngsters are allowed to run amok over the flowers. This wanton rampage is believed to symbolise the forces of renewal. Nothing lasts forever, so if you're in the region, be sure to get a glimpse of this amazing floral art masterpiece.
FESTA DELLA SENSA – c. 17th May, Venice
Continuing the run of traditional celebrations this May, Festa Della Sensa takes place in Venice in the middle of the month.
It's an annual occasion that marks a number of significant events, principally the Ascension of Christ. The festival also marks the rescue of the Dalmatians by Doge Pietro Orsedo II in May 1000 and the signing of the peace treaty in Venice to prevent conflict between the Papacy and the Empire in 1177.
Venice puts on a real show for Festa Della Sensa, drawing on its roots with historical markets, boat races and of course the traditional Wedding With The Sea in which the symbolic ring is thrown into the water.
VOGALONGA – 24th May, Venice
Taking to the Venetian waters on the 24th May will be a large gathering of boating participants for the annual Venetian event, Vogalonga.
Vogalonga was started in 1974, originally as an alleged protest by the local rowing clubs against the rising number of motor boats. Today, the event is a lot more good natured, with local rowers and private boaters coming together to take part. The course spans 32 kilometres and covers the San Marco Basin, the Island of Burano, the Grand Canal and Punta della Dogana.
DAFFODIL FESTIVAL – 25th May (TBC) Rocca di Mezzo
One of the key Spring flowers is the daffodil. Whether blooming in the garden or in the country, the daffodil is a surefire sign that the Spring season is well and truly here.
So what better way to celebrate this iconic flower than with its own festival? The Abruzzo town of Rocca di Mezzo can oblige with its own Daffodil Festival that takes place in the latter part of May. It's a showcase of hundreds of thousands of different varieties of daffodils – all sorts of ancient stems and hybrids can be seen at this festival with a myriad of different colours such as rose and coral in addition to the usual yellow.
To complement the festival, there will be a choice of Spring-related celebrations in the area including a special parade and a folk dancing event.
Il PALIO DI FERRARA - 31st May
Il Palio di Ferrara is said to be one of the oldest horse races in the world, with its roots dating back to the 13th century. Following Azzo VII d'Este's victory over Ezzelino da Romano in Cassano d'Adda in 1259, the first instance of the palio was introduced through the streets of the city. 20 years later, the palio was a regular mainstay until 1600. Then, in 1933, the event was launched again and continues to be a key celebration in Ferrara's annual calendar.
The race pits eight districts of Ferrara against each other – it's run with a feel for the historical. Ferrara is taken back in time to the days of the Medieval and Renaissance ages with suitable dress, music and parades.