Well thankfully August 15 has come and gone, taking with it the frenzy of pre-Ferragosto, when people are either away, rushing to get away or making life difficult for everyone because they are not getting away. I usually stay in Rome in August by choice because I love the deserted city which reminds me of the Rome I fell in love with. The city shimmers in a heat haze and tourists, now the main inhabitants, limp from church to church, seeking some blessed. cool. After a light lunch and several glasses of chilled white wine the afternoons are reserved for dreaming, sleeping and reading until late evening when a welcome breeze springs up and drifts down the narrow, cobble-stoned streets and up over my terrace.
When I first came to Rome in the 60s the city was deserted for the entire month as people left town to escape the suffocating heat. In the last decade vacations have shrunk and today most people only aspire to two weeks, before of after Ferragosto. The important restaurants shut for the entire month and even food shops and markets lower their shutters and leave the city. At one time it became a treasure hunt to source fresh milk and bread but the supermarkets have made life easier in August although we all yearn for our favourite small, speciality shops.
All Catholic countries celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary but in Italy Ferragosto fever rises to new heights and affects everyone. Its origins are pagan, based on the fertility rites that celebrated the annual lush fruit and vegetable harvest. In 18 B.C. the Emperor Augustus established the official Feriae Augustus when people rested from their labours, and even the beasts of burden were decorated with flowers and given a day off. The weather confirmed August as the main holiday period and in 1920 the Facist government jumped on the band wagon (an irresistible mixed metaphor)with the cheap People’s Trains, taking the populace out of the cities to the sea or mountains. The last day train back from the wine-producing town of Frascati, known as the ‘tropéa’ or ‘drunk’ train, enjoyed great popularity. The ordinary long-distance trains from Milan and Torino were filled with workers from the south of Italy as they struggled to get home for Ferragosto, and in modern Italy the airports face the same battle.