Village festivals the heart and soul of Italy

CERRETO, Italy — Think of an Italian summer and you think of azure seas, sun-splashed beaches, cool mountains cupping dark lakes and overheated crowds of tourists investigating every museum and ancient church.

Things are different in Tuscany as well as in Umbria, where I live, for part of the year. Every local community, no matter how small, puts on its own summer festa, or festival. Some are based on religion: Each village has its own patron saint to celebrate with a day of services and parades followed by a night of feasting, dancing and, of course, fireworks.


Then there are sagras, festivals dedicated to food. Each community chooses a specialty food and organizes its festivities around it. There is the sagra del cinghiale (feast of roast boar), the sagra dell'oca (goose), della lepre (hare), degli umbrichelli (fat local spaghetti), della castagna (chestnut) and della lumaca (snail). There's even a sagra dedicated to bombolone, a custard-filled doughnut.

Last summer, I decided it was time to get out and party like an Italian. I wanted to see how much fun I could have without spending much money or fighting my way down the clogged autostrada to sweltering beaches in the annual rush al mare (to the sea).

I started at Cerreto, the hamlet I see from my kitchen window. Cerreto has a single street, no shop, no church and a school that closed decades ago. But for seven nights every August, it stages its Sagra della Focaccia (bread) that brings together more than 7,000 visitors to eat, drink, dance and make merry. That would be a challenge for a large professional catering operation, never mind a community with a population of 200.

My friend Bernardo Barberani stopped by the first night. He is a third-generation award-winning local winemaker. He was carrying a chilled bottle of his Orvieto Classico and poured some into my plastic cup. He said that when he was young, his mother never let him go to sagras, "because the hygiene was a bit lax — people cooked outdoors around open fires." Now, Barberani said regulations have been tightened and sagras are safe places to eat.

Like other Italian dishes that now fetch premium prices in Manhattan and L.A., focaccia was once the poorest food of the poorest people; it's just bread made with flour and water. It used to be baked on the hearth in the evening under the ashes of the dying fire. Traditionally, when half-cooked, the bread was split open and stuffed with leftovers before being put back into the fire to get gooey. The Sagra della Focaccia re-creates this by offering a variety of fillings. I tried the sausage with arugula (about $6). The sausage juices soaked into the bread, which my husband, Mike, and I washed down with a bottle of Barberani's wine (another $6). Mike had the caprese, but there were plenty of other choices, including tuna or Nutella.

By now, cars were driving slowly up the hill to park in a field set aside for the purpose, and the piazza was filling. Any fears I'd had that we would feel out of place soon evaporated. Italians are brilliant at making everyone feel welcome, and the communal tables mean you can mingle or not as you choose. There were British and American accents to be heard too, belonging to local expats and others.

Typically, festas and sagras are run by committees. Giacomo Bonaccorsi, the local geometra, a cross between an architect and a surveyor, is a stalwart of Cerreto's core group.

Guided by Bonaccorsi, I stepped behind the scenes to watch. Women made the dough, forming circles the size of dinner plates that they passed on to be baked in one of six wood-burning ovens. Franco, the retired village postman, was melting in the heat as he baked focaccia after focaccia. Small boys collected the freshly baked bread and took it to old men in red hats who sliced and quartered the loaves.

Young women, giggling in their white hairnets and latex gloves, stood around a huge square table. They snatched up the fresh bread and stuffed the triangles for girls to stack on paper trays and take out to the waiting line. Threading in and out, children in Focaccia festival T-shirts tossed rubbish into black trash bags, their squad marshaled by Big Steve, formerly of Morgan Stanley in New York and now a Cerreto resident.

"There's nothing like this in the States. It's so community," he said, swiping another crumpled paper plate into his sack.

No one gets paid except with food and drinks. All the profits are plowed back into the festival, which is how organizers built the huge piazza and six wood-burning ovens.

With the feeding of the 1,000 that evening well underway it was time for the evening's second half — music and dancing. There's a different band every night of the festival, all of them professional touring groups. The bands draw the crowds and are the biggest item in the budget — $1,000 to $3,500 a night for a lineup of saxophones, dueling guitars, accordion, drums and two or three female singers in skimpy sequins.

And Italians can dance. Everyone from tiny tots to anziani (senior citizens) knows his or her cha-cha from his two-step, and many are truly expert. As soon as the night's group, Vitamin Dance, struck up in a blast of synthesizers, guitars and flashing lights, the older couples dashed onto the dance floor, the grandchildren jiggled around the edges and the teenagers slunk off to their own alternative-rock disco set up in a lower part of the piazza. We retreated home to watch the closing fireworks, a brilliant, banging display, from our terrace.

For the next few weeks, I dragged Mike to every nearby festa and sagra. They were easy to find, inexpensive, welcoming and a lot of fun. Although few were on the scale of Cerreto's, some had twists such as the village that staged a festa Aug. 10 for the night of San Lorenzo, traditionally when you see shooting stars.


The festa started at 10 p.m. when the village policeman turned off the street lights. Flaming torches lighted on the rough stone walls returned the village to the Middle Ages. Scientists from Perugia set up two powerful telescopes for everyone to try. We ended by eating free pasta and drinking red wine. By then, no one minded that the shooting stars had been conspicuously absent.

Ferragosto, on Aug. 15, is the Italian midsummer, with festas everywhere on that day. My village of Civitella del Lago stages an annual dinner in the street outside the church ($15 a head for three courses plus wine), followed by dancing to an accordion trio. Finally, everyone troops to the belvedere overlooking the valley to watch a truly spectacular fireworks display, better than I've seen in London and New York on New Year's Eve.

Enrico Montoni, who has been organizing festas in Civitella for years, said: "People will only give money if they know there are going to be fireworks." Italians understand that fireworks are a show that starts slowly and builds to a crescendo so loud that you can't tell where the noise starts and your body ends.

As I watched the display, I found myself next to Tobias Oberer, originally from Switzerland but now living locally. We talked about France, where you can buy cheap, handsome properties but where the villages are deserted, the populace long decamped to the cities. "Then you come here and just look around you," Tobias said, gesturing at the buzzing crowd on the belvedere. "These are living communities. Old, young, rich, poor, fat, thin, everyone is here together with no barriers. This is the heart and soul of Italy."