Tag Archives: saint festivals Italy

Festas, fiestas, and a little Italian heat

One effect of Boston’s summer heat is that it makes me feel like I’m on vacation. Delft’s seasons don’t run as hot and cold, and there weren’t many genuine shorts-and-tank-top days (by my reading, not the TU Delft undergrad-girl reading) per summer. I like the hot-hot days, and for the last four summers I’ve associated them with the Mediterranean: Ostuni. Dubrovnik (lord, it was hot in Dubrovnik). Barcelona. Ventimiglia.

The places where everything shuts down in the afternoon because it has to, because the only thing you really can do is swim or siesta after a fresh lunch with a glass of white wine. The places optimized for that thing you always heard about as a kid where you could cook an egg on the pavement.

With our warmest days peaking around 90 F, OK, it hasn’t been Mediterranean hot. And as I look out my front windows to a suburban leafy street where cars and the occasional rogue cyclist rush by, the atmosphere is rather altered as well. But this past Saturday, sick of unpacking boxes and sorting through old photos and files and whatnot, I went online looking for weekend activities and found another Italian echo: the St. Peter’s Fiesta in Gloucester, MA.

I have memories from growing up of the Catholic church in our town having a carnival every summer. (A kermis, we’d say in Holland.) But when we were in Italy it was my thrill to stumble several times upon Italian saint festivals: lights on cobbled streets and men in their suits in the evening heat, somber-faced as they carry a gigantic statue through the town, while women behind them bark prayers into megaphones. The local band follows with a march. Gelato is scooped late into the night and the saint eventually retires to the church for another year.

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Polignano a Mare, 2011

Last summer while in residence at the lovely Palazzo Rinaldi, I was taken by my hosts to a small nearby village for an event known as the Festa della Pita, the identifying feature of which is that men hoist a tall stripped tree trunk, and then try to climb it to earn prizes.

This perfectly primed me for the Pita’s horizontal cousin in Gloucester: the Greasy Pole competition. During the five-day tribute to the patron saint of the seaside town’s fisherfolk, a thick wooden pole is stuck out over the water, slathered with grease, and given an Italian flag at the far end. We made the one-hour drive to Gloucester on Saturday with greasy-pole viewing high on our agenda.

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

Seine boat race underway, with the greasy pole platform to the left

We headed to the beach after a quick stroll through the town: quaint and pretty, with some tempting Italian cafes, and gift shops selling over-priced sea-themed trinkets. The pole and platform had been erected a short distance out from the beach, nearby a massive conglomerate of boats: a floating party, of everything from kayaks to speedboats, with swimsuited people moving between. It was a hot day, but the water was still cold.

The opening act for the greasy pole was the Seine Boat Race—three rowboats labeled the Nina, Pinta, and the Santa Maria, each manned by about ten guys, racing each other to some point on the horizon and back. The race was fun enough, but heavily negated by the long maneuvering of the boats into position and a ridiculous string of false starts. A cheer went up when a large, pontoon-style boat ferried all the contestants out to the platform for the greasy pole, where I can only presume they took some time to sober up in the hot sun and remember why they had agreed to do this. As the crowd on the beach grew enormous, the first man stepped up onto the pole, promptly fell off, and the action was underway.

A greasy pole contender

A greasy pole contender

The objective for these men–some in bathing trunks, others in everything from superhero costumes to a suit–was to get that flag. As each man’s effort tended to last between zero and four seconds, the line cranked right along. After a half-hour, only one man had made it past the halfway mark, but had tumbled into the water before grasping the flag. We began seeing repeat contestants and wondered how the rules were defined: does the event simply continue until a) everyone quits or b) the flag is won?

Although attempting the greasy pole seemed fairly unsafe (some contenders fell straight to the water, but others smacked various body parts off the pole en route), the local police, fire department, and Coast Guard were all represented on the water–I suppose in case anyone were to become seriously injured. This struck me as an American touch.

Beachside crowd

Beachside crowd

Around the one-hour mark, our interest began to wane, and we were making our way along the beach when a roar from the crowd turned our heads. A man made his way half, then two-thirds the length of the pole–he was within arm’s length of the coveted flag–and though he fell into the water before grasping it, he managed to dislodge the flag, which fluttered down after him. Does that count? I barely had time to ask myself before the entire beach surged. People went wild with cheering; the contestants on the platform all began jumping into the ocean; “Who was it?” a stranger asked me eagerly–“Did you see who it was?”

I confessed that I did not know any of the contenders. The whole group swam toward shore, the champion with the flag held high, and as soon as they reached land, he was pulled up onto others’ shoulders and whisked away into the streets.

Carnival, Gloucester

Carnival, Gloucester

We had intended to drive home and make dinner, but the lure of the seaside atmosphere became too strong; so we wandered the town while the sun sunk and had seafood at a restaurant. Probably two hours after we’d left the beach, through the restaurant windows we saw the champion pass by, still clutching the flag, flush with celebration. The entire place cheered, and to me, it felt like summer.


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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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