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Living Slow in Italy - Men in Tights, Sleepless Nights, and the Wine of the Holy Thorn

Valerie Schneider

There are three public announcement sites in town, places designed for the dissemination of local information where posters get slathered across the walls to publicize the upcoming activities. Summer brings a bigger proliferation of the placards as everything shifts into high gear. Sometimes the organizers are slow in getting them up; at least three times we've gotten excited about the prospect of an event only to find that it had occurred a few days before. Never mind that we had checked The Wall on the day before the concert. Musical groups, dances, lecture series, theatrical productions ... they are all advertised by the posters. Our reason for checking The Wall regularly, though, is to find out about the sagre.

Sagra Poster

A sagra in Italy is akin to a county fair in Midwest America ... but better. Deriving from the term sacra festa, they are frequently held in conjunction with a religious festival or saint's feast day and feature some type of religious observation or procession as part of the activity line-up. But for the most part, as with everything in Italy, it boils down to the food. While it may proclaim a saint's day, the bigger headline is the type of delicacy they will be cooking up. We have adopted sagra-hopping as our main summer-time activity.

Here in Ascoli, each sestiere (neighborhood) has its own sagra, and all the little hill towns throughout the province have them slated throughout the season, as well. I'm not exaggerating when I tell you that if there is a food item made in Italy, there is a festival to pay homage to it. In the "what's happening in the province this summer" booklet we have found no less than 13 towns offering a Sagra della Birra, (some of them also serving pizza with the beer); five that are dedicated solely to pizza; and seven that will be grilling up arrosticini, skewers containing little nuggets of lamb meat. The wafting smell of the grilling meat is unbelievably enticing and even if I'm not very hungry, I cave in and order a skewer once my nostrils get a whiff of the barbecue.

There are sagre to celebrate the local wines and polenta fests with a variety of toppings (sausage, fish, clams, or snails, take your pick). Truffles and porcini mushrooms are popular in these parts as are all things pig. I lost count of the number of festivals dedicated to pork, either roasted in its entirety, served as a grilled chop, or in one of its processed forms such as sausage and prosciutto. Many proclaim they will hold a "sagra delle specialita suine,” which I'm convinced is an all-purpose term to throw into the events calendar until they've decided exactly what type of pork they will make. To counter-balance the whole hog fests, I've also noted three organic festivals, one for whole-grains, and a couple celebrating the orto (garden).

Some sagre are downright specialized, though. Want to go to the "spaghetti with a lightly seasoned sauce of fish and stewed mussels" festival? Or perhaps the one for the "boiled snails dressed with extra virgin olive oil, tomatoes and spices". Others are kind of gross: rana (frogs); zampetti di maiale (pig's feet); baccala (dried up salt cod); and let's not forget the sagra of the duck liver. Blech.

Most sagre offer very good regional foods, though. We attended one dedicated to the famed spaghetti all'amatriciana and another for crespelle, which turns out to be kind of like New Mexico fry bread but without the honey, which is really a shame because it would have been much tastier with that drizzled over the top. The Sagra delle Crespelle was held in the neighborhood by the church of San Pietro Martire in commemoration of the sacra spina, or holy thorn. They have a thorn said to come from the crown Jesus was forced to wear preserved in an ornate reliquary inside the church. It is usually under lock and key and we had not had the chance to gaze upon it up close and personal until this event, when they squeaked open the heavy metal gate that usually protects the relic and allowed us access to it. Almost. It was still behind glass. I admit that despite squinting this way and that, I still couldn't actually see the little thorn inside the encasement.

Many sagre have fund-raising efforts for the church or organization hosting the party. This one was unique, though. Who could possibly pass up buying a bottle of special local wine bearing a label that says it was produced especially for the Festa of the Holy Thorn? For 3 Euro, not I. At most, the fund-raiser of choice seems to always revolve around the Pesca di Beneficenza, a kind of raffle lottery. You pay a few euros and receive prizes based on the corresponding numbers you draw. I wanted the prosciutto. Or the bicycle. I got a cute little hair clip ... useful for my long, flowing locks. While we munched our crespelle we heard a commotion over at the raffle table and I looked in time to see a kid of about 10 jumping up and down in absolute glee. I nudged Bryan and said, "Look, the boy got the bike!" The man running the table came out and rang a bell and everyone inside was clapping and slapping the kid on the back. He stepped out of the church pumping his arms in the air and yelled, "Wooooo! PROSCIUTTOOOOOO!!!!" I ask you, how many ten-year olds in America would get so excited about winning a whole ham?

Music is obligatory at sagras, normally local groups singing poorly-pronounced English lyrics before a wildly appreciative audience. The crowd loves it, no matter how badly they play, and dancing ensues at each of these events. It's all a lot of home-spun fun with good food at low prices, and a pleasant way to pass a summer evening in the company of fun-loving locals. At each sagra we've attended we have drawn a little bit of attention by being the only foreigners present.

As fun as the sagre are, the real must-see summer event around here is La Quintana, Ascoli's medieval Palio games. The historic sestieri (neighborhoods) compete against each other in old-time fashion to see who can outdo the others in style, strength, and horsemanship. There are well-practiced sbandieratori (flag-throwers) who manage to display artistry as well as vigor and stamina in their performances, competing along with their bands in arrangements so well-orchestrated they make marching bands look a little bland.

Sbandieratori - Flag Throwers

Sbandieratori (flag-throwers) in Ascoli Piceno

There is a parade of amazingly-arrayed participants that numbers 1200, all in velvet, brocade and woolen tights following knights clad in armor. (People. Men in tights!) It's a step back to the Middle Ages when the noble families and their courtiers along with the valiant cavaliers who defended the city amassed before the common folk to show their power, prestige, skill and beauty. Today, the beauty and skill part are still evident remainders of the tradition. Whether the figuranti hold power and prestige, being a foreigner I am not too sure.

Knights

Knights

The events of La Quintana culminate in the high-energy and highly heated jousting match where the sestieri inhabitants root loudly for their neighborhood's horse and cavalier to win the cherished Palio. I'm pretty sure there's a lot of money exchanging hands during this event, too. The cavalier must enter a figure eight-shaped track in the middle of which is a target called the Saracen or the Moor. No, political correctness hasn't invaded medieval traditions. The cavaliere must ride the horse around the track, enter the figure 8 and skillfully maneuver the horse on the tight turns while holding on tight to a long, heavy wooden lance that he uses to pound the target. All at full speed. It's pretty exciting stuff, and the joust in July serves to rile people up so that when the August edition rolls around the fans scream curses about the opposing cavaliers' mothers, the other districts' intelligence levels, and some kind of epithet involving pigs that I'd rather not know about. No wonder city-state wars broke out so frequently.

Cavaliere hitting Saracen

Cavaliere hitting Saracen

You know, just your run-of-the-mill medieval re-enactment being played out for the sixth century running.

And as if that weren't enough to keep everyone busy, the city has sponsored a series of concerts in the piazzas. I think it's to keep the good citizens busy and content so they don't notice how hot and cranky they are. Each night for ten days there have been at least two, but frequently three, musical guests playing on stages set up in the main piazzas and in the now-public cloister of a 13th century church. Not only do we get to enjoy a variety of good jazz and popular folk tunes, as well as some stranger acts like a celtic-inspired metal band, we get to see them in the shadow of some amazing monuments, enjoying the atmosphere and the beautiful architecture. Oh, yes ... and most of these events are absolutely free.

They play long into the night; since we live in close proximity to both of the main piazzas we get to hear the music and the partying Ascolani long after we've returned home, so while the locals are content, I'm rather irritable from lack of sleep. Sometimes we think that there is too much to do; it makes us feel a little manic. We consider just staying home, but we have to listen to the sounds anyway, so we may as well go out into the piazza to catch what bit of breeze may be blowing. It's a conundrum.

All of these summer activities are exhausting and we need a vacation from the vacation period. For now, though, I think I'll break open the Wine of the Holy Thorn and hope it bestows upon me the blessing of blissful sleep so I can attend tomorrow's concert and check The Wall for the next round of sagre.

Resources

See more photos of the sagra.

Sagra della Rana: Journal and photos about the local sagra near Milan (Festival of the Frog).

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

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


Valerie Schneider is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read more on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2007

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