The most unusual festivals in Italy

The most unusual festivals in Italy

Italy is renowned for its festivals. There are festivals celebrating its rich historical past, its music, its food, wine and scenery. Everyone has, no doubt, heard of Siena’s Palio held each July, or the Venice Carnevale which takes place every February. Also extremely well known is Verona’s Summer Opera Season or the Truffle Fair held in Alba every Autumn. But how many of these lesser known festivals do you know or how many of these more bizarre Italian festivals have you actually been to?!!

Carnivale di Ivrea: The Battle of the Oranges!

Every February or March, the town of Ivrea which sits North East of Turin plays host to a 3 day long festival which must also be Italy’s messiest festival when participants literally pelt each other with oranges as they process through the streets. Think of it as one giant food fight with thousands of people throwing oranges at each other!

The festival has its origins in the Middle Ages and supposedly commemorates the defiance of the city against a tyrannical member of the Ranieri family. So the story goes, this tyrant tried to rape a young miller’s daughter on the eve of her wedding, supposedly exercising the droit du seigneur. Although, if the story is to be believed, the girl had the last laugh, decapitating the tyrant and triggering a riot through the streets in which the palace was stormed and burned!

 Each year, a young girl is chosen to play the part of the young woman, Violetta, whilst teams of aranceri (orange handlers) on foot pelt teams of aranceri riding in carts with oranges. Those on foot represent the commoners whilst those in carts are the tyrants. There are nine combat teams in total and there is an entrance fee if you want to take part. This is serious stuff – you’ll be kitted out with a helmet for protection – but with more than 400 tons of oranges thrown each day, you’ll certainly be grateful for it! And, of course, with all those oranges, the citrus smell that pervades the streets at this time is incredible!

Palio dei Somari

Forget the Palio in Siena! Instead, head to Torrita di Siena (approximately 80 km South East of Florence) to witness the Palio dei Somari (donkey race). Held on the first Sunday after 19 March (or on the 19 March itself if that happens to be a Sunday), eight districts compete in the race with jockeys aiming to be first over the finishing line to claim victory.

The race has been held annually since it began in 1966 when the 7000 residents of the town decided they wanted to commemorate St Joseph, the patron saint of carpenters and workers. Four districts within the walls – Porta a Pago, Porta a Sole, Porta Gavina and Porta Nova – and four districts outside the walls – Cavone, Le Fonti, Refenero and Stazione – compete to be awarded with the winners banner which they then proudly display in their headquarters.

Festivities also include a procession with hundreds dressed in elaborate historical costumes and where you can admire dozens of flag throwers. A prize – sfoggiato – is awarded to the district with the finest costumes.

Find your vacation rental in Tuscany so that you can witness the Palio della Rana for yourself.

Palio della Rana

The Palio della Rana must definitely be one of the more unusual races in Italy. Held in Fermignano in Le Marche on the first Sunday after Easter, contestants dress in historic costumes and literally race their frogs on wheelbarrows. The winner is the contestant to cross the finishing line first (with their frog still on board!)  

Seven districts within the town compete – La Torre, Cà Agostina, San Lazzaro, San Silvestro, Calpino, La Pieve, Santa Barbara – with each district clearly identified by its choice of coloured clothing. The race starts by each frog being placed on a wheelbarrow, underneath a basket. The baskets are then removed, signalling the start of the 170 metre long race. Those competing rush to be the first to cross the finish line, but they have to take care to keep their frogs on board! If the frog jumps off, then they have to put it carefully back on before continuing! All in all, it’s a unique and fun event cheered on by hundreds of spectators!

The race is accompanied by other events including a historic procession of the Ducal Court of Urbino which precedes the race accompanied by music. There is also a craft market where you can find a plethora of locally made wooden items along with ceramics, metal and leather goods and, of course, plenty of food and wine stalls. There are also demonstrations of ancient craft techniques, an archery tournament and plenty of flag waving! And a fireworks display brings the weekend of celebrations to a close.

Find your vacation rental in Marche so that you can witness the Palio della Rana for yourself.

Festival of the Snakes

Italy’s Festival of the Snakes – is held on the first Thursday in May in the small town of Cocullo in Abruzzo. It is certainly one of the most unusual (and most slippery!) of festivals in Italy.

Local legend has it that, back in the 11th century, the town’s patron saint, San Domenico di Sora, helped the town’s farmers by rendering all the poisonous snakes in the area harmless. However, it may be that the event also has its origins further back in the ancient worship of the Roman Goddess of Snakes, Angitia.

Before the festival, snake catchers and charmers – serpari – catch four types of harmless snakes, before handing them out to worshippers. And then, during the festival itself, a statue of the Saint is carried through the streets of Cocullo, draped with hundreds of live snakes. So many are added that, by the end, the statue itself is almost hidden beneath a sea of snakes. The procession is accompanied with live music and many participants wear traditional costumes, handing out sweets and bread shaped like snakes to those watching. The event culminates in a firework display.

Find your perfect vacation rental in Italy for your next trip to Italy so that you can take part in one of Italy’s many annual festivals and enjoy a taste of the local culture.