Sagra del Pesce & Festa di San Fortunato

Every year, on the second weekend of May, thousands of visitors flock to the small fishing village of Camogli in Liguria, for the annual two-day celebration of ‘Sagra del Pesce’ and 'Festa di San Fortunato'. 

It’s one of Camogli’s busiest weekends; incorporating spectacular fireworks, two huge bonfires, the racing of a life-size Saint up the steps of the Basilica, and culminating in the distribution of thousands of plates of fried fish from the world’s largest frying pan on the Sunday.

What is it? 

‘Sagra del Pesce’ is an annual event held on the second Sunday of May.  A large iron frying pan (la padella) is stationed in the Piazza Columbo. It measures approximately 10m in length, weighs approximately 1500kg and holds over 1000 litres of oil, which is used to fry over three tonnes of fish and provides between 3,500 to 5000 servings of fish to the community and visitors. 

It follows the 'Festa di San Fortunato', which is held on the second Saturday of May each year, in honour of San. Fortunato, the Patron Saint of Camogli. 

Queues for fried fish on at the Sagra del Pesce, 2016. The frying pan is stationed beneath the blue umbrella (of the same size) 

Queues for fried fish on at the Sagra del Pesce, 2016. The frying pan is stationed beneath the blue umbrella (of the same size) 

What happens? 

Sagra del Pesce: 

Hundreds of buses and trains full of Italian and international tourists descend upon the town early in the morning. White tents selling cheeses, woodcrafts, meats, pesto and jewellery pitch up along the Via della Republica and Via XX Septembre for the 'Mercatino di San Fortunato'.  Visitors start forming a long queue to the Padella for their pots of fish from around 11am.  Whilst the fish used to be free, the festival is now so popular that authorities ask for a donation.  You should be prepared to queue for at least an hour for your little pot of fish. Most residents of Camogli will avoid the town on Sunday, preferring to venture out for the ‘Festa di San Fortunato’ the night before. 

Festa di San Fortunato:

Preparations for the 'Festa di San Fortunato' begin earlier during the week, with children from the local nursery and schools painting old furniture, broken boats and huge cardboard panels, to create two large sculptures which will then be burnt in two large bonfires on the evening. On the actual evening, a procession passes through the town with a statue of San Fortunato, accompanied by a model of Christ, and members of the Genoese Brotherhood. At around 10pm, twenty-one shots are fired, following which the procession (trailed by authorities of Camogli and residents) makes a hasty progression to the Basilica, accompanied by music from the Citta di Camogli Citizen Band. The finale sees eight volunteers race the statue of San Fortunato up the staircase of the Basilica to the top of the church (video below). Following this, the bonfires begin at the 'Porto' and 'Pineto', two beaches at opposite ends of the promenade. A spectacular fireworks display begins at around 11.15pm which sees fireworks set off from the sea, illuminating the Basilica Minore di Santa Maria Assunta and setting the Draganora Castle ablaze with colour. 

Meanwhile, members of the Camogli rowing team, row the 'U Dragoon', an iconic Camogliese boat, up and down the seafront in its own procession. 

The History

Serving fish at the Sagra del Pesce in 1953, before the introduction of the giant frying pan

Serving fish at the Sagra del Pesce in 1953, before the introduction of the giant frying pan

'Sagra del Pesce’ was established in post-war Italy, in a bid to promote Camogli as a tourist destination during a period of economic revival. Lawyer Filippo Degregori and a fisherman Lorenzo ‘o Napoli’ Viacava, along with residents of Camogli, fried six large frying pans full of fish throughout the night, to distribute to residents of the town and local visitors. The following year the number of pans doubled, as did the number of visitors. The two men decided to commission one large frying pan for the event, and so began the tradition.  

  • In 1954 the first giant frying pan was commissioned to Officinal Metalli in Calata Gadda, Genoa. It measured 4m diameter and weighed 1,100kg. 
  • In 1955 the festival was broadcast live with Eurovision
  • In 1959 the pan fell in the water during transportation, on the eve of the festival and had to be retrieved by residents. 
  • The current pan, which is now the fifth and is made of stainless steel and measures 10m, was introduced in 2001. 

Top Tips 

  • If you can, make it a weekend trip and try to catch the Festa di San. Fortunato. It's the quintessential Italian experience
  • Keep an ear out for the 21 shots on Saturday night. This marks the beginning of the procession and gives you time to join it. 
  • If you're desperate to try the fish on Sunday, try to get there early in the day. As well as spending less time in the queue,  you won't be eating fish that's been sitting in a pan all day. 
  • If you're religious, or even just interested in churches, make sure you catch mass on Sunday morning at 11am, which pays special tribute to San Fortunato
  • Don't try to drive into Camogli. Parking is notoriously difficult to find on a typical day, during the festival period it's impossible. 

Off to the Camogli? Lucky you! Here are four of my favourite restaurants and five of the best walks in the area.