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Anne's Travel Notes - Summer is the Time for Sagra!

Anne Robichaud

We've been attending the local sagre (singular; sagra) or country festivals since our arrival here in Umbria nearly thirty years ago and we have our favorites. We recently discovered another one; "Primavera Sant'Enea" (Spring in Sant'Enea), at a tiny hilltop village outside of Perugia, Sant'Enea (pop. 997). This town originated as a 13th century monastery dedicated to Sant'Agnese (hence "Enea").

As is customary at a sagra, the theme is a culinary specialty. At Sant'Enea it is pork, with different sorts of dishes every night for the nine-day sagra, most of them on the pork theme. On the last night of the sagra, risotto or tagliatelle (homemade fettuccine) were highlighted with fresh asparagus and the famed Umbrian sausages. The second course was roasted pork shin or mixed grill of ribs, sausages, and pork chops. On other nights they served: pappardelle (wide ribbon pasta) with wild boar, polenta with a meat sauce of pork cheek, ribs and porcini mushrooms followed by a second course which varied from roasted ribs with fennel-scented roast potatoes to mixed grill to barley soup with prosciutto bone. Tasty, typical, local antipastos are served before the meal and homemade desserts follow the meal, all accompanied with excellent local wines.

At all the sagre, huge tents are set up in designated areas of the village, and the local villagers, both men and women, volunteer as cooks while the young people serve at table. Stands of various types often flank the eating area.

At Sant'Enea, there were several stands:

  • bicycles could be rented to explore the area,
  • fresh strawberries with cream were sold,
  • carnival-type games could be played,
  • the ubiquitous sweet stand, present at every sagra or street fair in Italy since time immemorial, was there to tantalize the passers-by with many varieties of torrone (nougat), croccanti (honey-covered hazelnuts), dried fruits and nuts of every sort, licorice, and the semenze (seeds and legumes for nibbling - pumpkin, sunflower, roasted chickpeas, lupini).

Last night, my husband Pino and I arrived at Sant'Enea early, at seven-thirty, to beat the crowds. Every sagra has an outdoor dance floor with bandstand (it may be just the village tennis court) and the music usually starts at nine. Dancing continues to the early hours of the morning, and you should see those farm people dance: waltz, fox trot, tango, polka - dance after dance, non-stop, with little children paired together right in the midst, learning to ballroom dance by shadowing their parents. There is a sagra somewhere in Umbria all spring, summer, and into early fall, and many rural people and working class people attend them just for the dancing - free entertainment nightly! They dance their way through the summer nights.

Often sagre will offer locally-generated entertainment before the dance band: a performance by the local ballet school or the gymnastics class, a mini-soccer tournament, local theatre, even an open political debate. Sagre generally last from a week to ten days, some as long as two weeks, and are participated in by most people in the village through the duration of the festival (and often for months before, preparing for the sagra!).

The term sagra derives from "sacra festa," and at one time, the village sagra was centered on the feast day of the local patron saint. About thirty years ago, most of the sagre evolved into secular events, and today the focal point of most sagre is a culinary specialty: Sagra degli Asparagi (asparagus), Sagra dei Porcini (mushrooms), Sagra del Castagno (chestnut), Sagra della Ciliegia (cherry), Sagra della Pesca (peach), Sagra dell'Oca Arrosto (roast goose), Sagra dell'Anguilla (eel), Sagra della Torta (Umbrian bread), Sagra della Porchetta (roasted suckling pig), Sagra del Cinghiale (wild boar). What more perfect way to wind up the sagra season in late November than with the Sagra del Tartufo (truffle).

Some sagre still center on a Saint's Feast Day and open with a Mass and a religious procession on the first day, followed by the secular events (dinners and dancing) in the evenings. Such is the Sagra di Santa Anna in the Assisi countryside, not far from our home, which begins on or near the Feast of Saint Anne on July 26. Saint Anne is the patron saint of expectant mothers.

When I was expecting each of my three children, my farm neighbors would always remind me to visit the little church of Sant'Anna on her feast day to pray for a healthy baby. I remember the admonition of dear old Alessandro, leaning on his cane in front of the oxen stall, who had waved me down as I passed on my motorbike, reminding me to visit Sant'Anna. A week later he presented me with a holy card from Sant'Anna. He was worried that I had not gone to pray for the birth of our third child (due that winter), and so he went on foot, leaning on his cane, to do it for me! Giulia was a very healthy baby - grazie, Alessandro!

A visit to a sagra is your opportunity to join in the local life and festivities of an Umbrian village. You will enjoy some of the best food in Umbria, and at the best prices. You may also be the only foreigners present! I took a group of Americans to a sagra last summer, and they acclaimed it the highlight of their month in Italy. Many of the villagers stopped at our table to ask how they had ever ended up there!

How to find a sagra? Ask the locals or look at the town notice boards - and look for the words sagra or festa. These events generally run one week to ten days and take place in small villages, NOT in towns or cities (which have their annual festivals).

Best time to attend? Friday, Saturday or Sunday nights for the dancing, which usually starts after 9pm. Get there about 7:30pm to eat - before the food lines start!

Resources

The Umbrian Sagra Survival Guide: How to behave at a local Italian festival, which ones to go to, by Rebecca from Italy.

No Sagra for You!: Maureen lists the possible sagre (festivals) you can attend in May in Tuscany, and why you many not want to.

www.hostetler.net: Dan, an American who lived in Milan for several years, has put together a comprehensive list of festivals throughout Italy. You can select by month and region. I print out the list that I need before a trip.


Anne Robichaud lives near Assisi and gives lectures and tours. www.annesitaly.com

© Anne Robichaud, 2006. Do not republish without permission.

This essay was first published on Anne's website www.annesitaly.com. Edited by Slow Travel.

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