August 2021. Ferragosto - The Great Escape

Ferragosto - The Great Escape.

Italy in August is not itself. To be more precise, the first two weeks present a certain laxity, an anticipated winding down to what must represent the major non-Christian event of the year attaching itself to one of the most important – that of The Assumption, when Mary, body and soul, was whisked into heaven. At the same time Italians seem to take on an even greater light hearted quality in their manner, even, an infectious exuberance. A respite from all their labours is just round the corner.

There is a tradition that the event of Ferragosto harks back to an eighteenth-century BC Roman tradition instigated by the Emperor Augustus after his defeat of that scoundrel Mark Anthony, at the Battle of Actium. Nice try. Only problem is, that this unholy battle took place on the 2nd of September. More likely the holiday was an historical matter hi-jacked by the Catholic Church on the occasion of the Assumption, and came to give great prominence in such events as the Palio dell’Assunta, taking place in Siena on 16th August. Anyone who has witnessed this fabulous horse race cannot doubt its importance by the atmosphere and religious fervour. Even the horses are led into the church to be blessed! Benito Mussolini boosted the holiday month, and his own prestige, by making it extremely popular, providing subsidised trips for the working classes. It should be stated that it was no great deal, as few in that section of the population could afford more than a day out. He was also a keep-fit freak and approved of children celebrating the occasion with a show of gymnastics. Elderly Tuscan ladies still recall as children, spotless white shirts and little black jackets, or mantilla, sported for the celebration.

Such a noteworthy occasion as the Assumption would, in any age, be acknowledged by a holiday, commencing on an appropriate day, which handily happens to be on August 15th, in the middle of summer, though factories and some commercial entities gear up a little earlier. Ferragosto, therefore, represents the departure of half of Italy to pastures new. This can be inopportune for visitors. I remember, of one such incident, being adrift in Milan with friends, and extremely exasperated by all the closed restaurants, until my wife hit on the very sensible idea of taking a taxi. Cab men in London know every brick and back door in London, so why not Milan, the lady postulated. And such was the case. Agreeing that Milan was virtually a deserted city, the cab man needed two false shots before landing us in front of a queue of hopeful couples outside a smart trattoria, praying for a table for two. Being four, we were ushered in on the first call of a free table, amongst a cloud of ill-humoured looks! However, this occasion was not as inconvenient as another. Escaping Milan on the Autostrada del Sol in August is not for the injudicious. Being trapped in a thirty-mile traffic jam moving at a walking pace, next to a lorry load of porkers heading for the knacker’s yard, is a salutary lesson in travel management. Blowing one’s head gasket to boot, was only slightly mitigated by the vehicle being an Alfa Romeo, and on its home ground, fixed tout suite the next day despite most of the garages being closed. And all for the equivalent of twenty pounds. Those were the days!

This, sometimes inopportune, event in the middle of summer thus also takes place when thousands – nay millions - of foreign guests descend in their hoards like ice cream wielding overweight Mogul nabobs. I swear Italy sinks an inch lower into its surrounding seas. Covid, it seems, has not deterred them, and ignorant of their hosts sensitivity to alien viruses being snorted in all directions, cram their half-naked persons into every ancient corner ready to ambush the unsuspecting locals.

Luckily, of course, many Italians escape to the coast, where their number far exceed alien intruders, and packed together like sardines, bask in liberated ‘social distancing’. Those with more discernment carefully avoid the beaches and the bikini clad young ladies, whose costumes these days are skimpier than their face masks! It has been hot, and not a few intelligent souls decide the calorific intensity of so many sand dusted and marooned bodies only adds to the broiling masochism of their compatriots. Better to be gone – in the opposite direction, up and away. Up, that is, to the cool mountains of Versilia, Lunigiana or the Mugello. High places where the air is fresh and perspiration only belongs to Italy’s peripheral condemned. They are wise indeed. Some even aim higher and escape to Gran Paradiso and the Dolomites where   vertical walking takes second place in masochism to vertical cycling. 1:3 takes on a whole new meaning. Derailleur sprockets, now the size of saucers, were never so large in my day!

To say I am not enamoured of this occasion will probably be seen as sour grapes on the part of someone who, in retirement, is supposed to be permanently on vacation. Besides the latter half of this statement being a false premise, I consider the influx of Euro wielding barbarians scattering economic largesse in all directions of some beneficial moment. Locals must tolerate their foreign guests’ attitude of letting it ‘all hang out’, whether belly or bosom, along with fixed horizontal stares when obviously, besides the medieval doors, all interesting architecture commences at the first floor. The commerce bustling at street level seemingly has more attraction, which in these contagious times, may be just as well. At least the virus has time for a rest! Here the way is littered with tables and chairs under large umbrellas, some sitting on wooden platforms raised at one end to avoid rolling down steep streets. Others are even crammed into tiny alleyways so passers-by have to walk sideways. Whole tables of them, visually isolated from their surroundings and companions, heads down, obsessively swiping their mobile devises that are happily, wonderfully, silent! Conversation seems to be an effort, confined only to ordering the occasional Moretti, Spumante, and San Pellegrino, for the  generally ‘addicted hi-tech’ entourage.

One cannot complain. After all, they represent that much needed largesse, sadly required to bolster an almost annihilated economy. But I do take issue with the sudden manifestation of a catering industry; fast-food setups, that like the Algave, blooms but once, then disappear. They have a deadening effect, stealing business from all those stalwart establishments that struggle through the year, keeping their doors open to all and sundry. In October, these interloping canteens and street-food buffets, will all be gone.

The present epidemic has seen other benefits for the neighbouring populace. An interesting aspect, no doubt caused by the dreaded virus, has been the absence of Mobile Homes, that straddling the white line were followed by long streams of local traffic delayed from going about their legal business.  Ditto coaches that no longer block up streets and turnings while they deposit their human cargo led by gesticulating cheer leaders with waving placards, pointing the way to the central piazza. Here they once held forth on the surrounding architecture, regaling their sweltering group with all the aplomb of a Sir Banister Fletcher. They have been replaced by the less formidable obstacle of wandering parents trailing bewildered toddlers or sulky teenager, hopeful of finding a convenient watering place out of the sun, where feeding their faces will initiate a sort of silence. No one seems to have told them that churches are permanently cool, even if a prosecco or two is beyond even the ministrations of a prayer.

Like the proverbial wet blanket, I shall be glad when everything returns to normal.