When the Saints Go Marching (in Puglia)

If you read the NY Times Frugal Traveler back in June, you knew I was headed to the region of southern Italy called Puglia (Apulia, in Italian): basically the back of the boot. We rented a trullo near the hill town of Locorotondo, and drove there from Bari airport (about an hour) after flying Easy Jet from Milan.

There was a notable lack of non-Italian tourists in Puglia (though vacationing Italians were everywhere). The only town in which we encountered more than three or four other non-Italian tourists was Alberobello (which swung quite the other way and was so touristy it gave me a headache). I had to rely on my phrasebook; Tim had to rely on our GPS (gulp); and we enjoyed some truly local experiences— several of which were… festivals.

One of our first nights in Puglia we drove to the gorgeous seaside town Polignano a Mare. The town rises on cliffs out of the sea. The beaches at the bottom are perfect. And the streets were… filled with men in suits carrying instruments. There were also some wooden white arches. And then, while we were eating dinner at Osteria Leone, a whole group of altar-guys and a massive crucifix appeared over my shoulder.

Had I consumed too much delicious Puglian wine? No: it was the Feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian! I grew up Catholic, but my scant expectations at this point came from the stories of my friend Amy (to whom this post goes out). Amy lived for a time in a little Italian enclave of Cambridge, MA, that still hosts a yearly to-do in honor of these same two saints. (You can attend it in September 2011.) Crowds gathered and we dined and shortly after 8 PM someone struck up the band and the parade began. (The parade also frequently halted, as illustrated in this video.)

The parade headliners were the statues of Cosmas and Damian, carried (no small feat) through the old town by six or so men. The saints were followed by various societies, orders, religious persons, and bands. At one point there was someone praying into a megaphone and people were responding.

After completing our meal we took a walk through a small carnival, and saw those white wooden arches illuminated.

I loved this entire night, and part of the reason was that this festival was not something anyone was doing for or to attract tourists. This was simply life: a local festival in a beautiful town on a summer evening. Luckily for me, we got to experience the whole thing all over again two nights later in Locorotondo, where the festivities were in honor of St. Rocco. The parade began with the chiming of all the bells in town (quite a few), and fireworks overhead.

Waiting for the sun to set. The parades began around 8 PM.

Locorotondo's band was outstanding. I would gladly have listened to them play a whole concert!

Waiting for St. Rocco to pass by

Locorotondo's lights

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