One of the best ways to sample Italian culture without spending many euros is participating in a small town festival, such as a festa, fiera or sagra.
While these are simple celebrations of an event or a saint, food is often the major focus. Starting with the first spring blossoms, regional festivals sprout up from north to south, celebrating cherries, porchetta (spit roasted pork), chianti (wine), asparagus, leeks, truffles, and chocolate, to name just a few. The delicacies are far from the "hand cramp prices" charged in the major cities, and the quality of the food is much higher.
The vibe is always local, too. Neighborhood lore, language, and traditions intermingle with food and wine tasting, live entertainment, and outdoor markets.
For a festa near one of your Italian Grand Tour pit stops, go online and use a search engine like Yahoo or Google to look up “festa” “sagra” and the name of the region where you will be visiting.
A few of the best known summer festivals are Siena’s Palio, Alba’s Tartuffo fair, and Arezzo's Giostra. They can be overcrowded and overpriced. But they are a lot of fun.
Here are some other festivals that range in subject matter:
Sagra della Porchetta -- in Ariccia, in Lazio, on Sept. 3, 2008 -- porchetta (roasted pork) festival
Marostica (in the Veneto) -- festival of the Cherries (during the last week in May), and Live Chess festival 2nd weekend in September every 2nd year. This is the area where Shakespeare was to have taken the idea for Romeo and Giuletta (not Verona).
Palio di San Ranieri -- Pisa (Tuscany) June 17, 2008-- boat race
Volterra (tuscany) -- for the last week in August the entire city becomes medieval
Bravio dei Botti Montepulciano (Tuscany) -- barrel racing up the hill, medieval costume, funny, last Sunday in August
Sagra del Torcetto, del Grissino, della Toma Lanzo Torinese (Piedmont) July 4 to 6 -- medieval costume, food such as Toma (a very old Piedmont stinky cheese)
Festa di Santa Rosalia Palermo (Sicily) street festival July 14 for Santa Rosalia
Once you're in Italy, finding a festa is easy. Just look out for the colorful posters on streets and highways, which announce the events, along with their dates (usually weekends), locations, and honored subject.
In winter months, posters are less frequent seen, but feasts, fairs and festivals are still happening. Local tourist offices, often found in train stations of larger cities, provide festa information. In smaller towns, its best to look on church and city hall doors.
Once you find a cool event, such as a life-size chess fair or a pistachio festival, remember not to tell your friends about it. Or else the events will become too popular!
—Erica Firpo, who is blogging from Rome as part of our Affordable Europe series.
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