Picture this. It’s 10am. You are strolling down a dusty sand path, armed with a beach bag, a bottle of factor 30 and some light literature. In front of you, a large elderly woman in a billowing button-down tunic leads a family spanning some four generations, armed with two large plastic picnic boxes. She is shouting ‘vai’ at an elderly man who hobbles behind her wearing a pair of sunglasses and what can only be described as a pair of swimming knickers, carrying several plastic sun loungers. His good-looking grandchildren follow behind, carrying between them an assortment of picnic tables, sun umbrellas and something which looks like an airbed. They routinely shout things like ‘attenti¡’ and ‘managgggggia’ at the cluster of screaming toddlers who are hanging off of their spare hands.
They are marching, which is disorientating, because Italians don't march. You ponder what might make an inherently time-nonchalant nation get a wriggle on.
And then, you arrive at the beach. And you understand their angst perfectly. It is a sea of near-naked bodies. Territories have already been marked by hundreds of families just like them; bodies have been oiled, umbrellas have been mantled, coiffured lifeguards are bickering, 'despacito' is playing and they are ready to beach.
Such is the scene across the entire coast, across the entire country.
For those of you unfamiliar with this annual Italian holiday, which takes place on the 15th August, Ferragosto marks the pinnacle of summer (as well as the Assumption of Mary). It is an ancient tradition, which derives from the Latin Feriae Augusti and dates all the way back to 18BC, though it really came to become what it is today when Mussuloni’s fascist government introduced the 'People’s Trains of Ferragosto’ in the 1920s- heavily discounted trains which gave poorer citizens the opportunity to visit the beach.
It essentially holds as much gravitas as Christmas in the Italian calendar. Should you find yourself on the Italian coast at this time of the year, you might like to mentally prepare:
1. Everybody goes to the beach
Everyone knows that most Italians bugger off to the coast in the summer. But Ferragosto is a day which essentially sees the entire nation slap a sign on their shop/restaurant/office window/house reading ‘BRB. Gone to the beach’. For what better way is there to spend a day off than bronzing your bare bottom on a lilo? Or sunbathing in a line with your entire extended family, bottle of beer in one hand, slab of focaccia in the other?
To call the beaches crowded would be a colossal understatement. But there is little way around this, you must either embrace the abundance of bodies or stay far, far away.
Arrive early to stake your territory and await the blissful period between 1pm and 4pm which sees everybody pack off to beach huts and picnic tables to unwrap Nonna’s lasagne and digest.
2. It’s family time.
Ferragosto is family time. It's a time for generations to come together and eat so much they can't speak.
3. Everywhere gets booked up
Last year, I spent much of August 12th holed up on the phone to various inns, villas, hotels and bnbs, bickering with many baffled Italians who all responded to my modern day Mary and Joseph saga with the same bemused ‘HELLO. It’s Ferragosto, obviously there is no room for you here’, incredulous that some English bird would have the audacity to expect them to put her up
A tip, book well ahead and budget a lot more money. Everywhere gets very expensive
4 Everything closes
It really is very impressive how entire towns can be made to look like no one has ever lived there. Shops, restaurants, post offices, bakeries are all closed, rendering most small towns silent save the clanking of the locks against the now iron clad shops and the rustle of the hurried handwritten chiuso paper sign which may as well read 'soz (not soz)'. In some towns, finding somewhere to buy a cappuccino can be an entire morning’s mission. Prepare ahead or head back to the cities where most but, most impoartantly, not all establishments are closed.
5. OK, everything is closed except the museums
Let us not question why a country which chooses to routinely close its museums on a Monday chooses to keep them all open on a day when most of the country closes. It’s the perfect time to pop to the Uffizi if the prospect of wading around the shallow end dodging fully grown men playing a heated game of ‘Catch’ whilst La Bumba plays in the background is a bit much.