Updated: Dec 30, 2019
If you visit Italy in August, just make sure you factor in Ferragosto - a time of the year when many Italians put up 'Chiuso per Ferie' (Closed for 'ferie' or holidays) signs and head out of town to frolic with the family by the beach.
About 25 years ago we were holidaying in Europe for three months and – as is my want – I had meticulously plotted a schedule and booked accommodation in each location because it was summer, and it can be challenging to get good hotels and apartments in popular places at that time of the year. I’d booked for nearly every place we were going, but there were a couple of days between Volterra and our final destination: Rome that I’d left blank. We weren’t sure what we wanted to do and anyway… how hard could it be to get somewhere for a couple of nights?
As it turned out, that became our first taste of Ferragosto and it was very, very hard.
So, what is Ferragosto, I hear you say, and what makes it so hard to get a hotel? Well, it is a week or so when all of Italy seems to go on holiday. Shops and restaurants close, the big cities empty a little and anywhere there is a beach or a pool across the country overflows with tanned Italians lazing all day in the sun, enjoying a drink in the early evening then a long meal until late, before going to bed and doing it all over again.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Like many things Italian – Ferragosto has its roots in ancient history. It all started with Emperor Augustus who, around 18 BC, decided to pull together a number of separate pagan festivities that took place throughout the hot summer and create a longer period of rest from the year's labours which were called Feriae Augusti or “festivals of Augustus”.... I think you can see where the word 'Ferragosto' might come from....
The main festival day was August 15, and horse races were held all across the Roman Empire and the citizens everywhere had huge feasts and celebrated. Today some horse races are still held at this time, such as the second phase of the famous Palio in Siena, which is held on August 16.
This tradition continued more or less through until Christianity took over all aspects to Roman life and pagan activities were frowned upon. But rather than ending all festivities, the Christians reframed the summer revelries; focussing on August 15, which was named Assumption Day, when Christians celebrated the Virgin Mary's elevation into heaven. A few days before and after, many people would escape the summer heat by heading for the beach or the mountains. Even if people stayed home, the holy day of August 15 was a festa to be observed; with a day before or after being connected with other religious observances and civic events.
Even so, the August desertion of the Italian cities we see today didn't really take hold until Fascism. Mussolini organised summer camps for children, called colonia estiva, where youngsters could go to the sea or the mountains for fresh air, recreation and sports (mixed with a bit of fascist indoctrination). After a while, they started to organise for adults to also go along for a few days. Parents could go to pick up the kids and stay a few days; giving families the opportunity for down-time and relaxation with organised cultural and recreational programs. Under Mussolini, rail tickets were steeply reduced and even families whose children didn't go to the colonia started to take advantage of this great deal by hopping on a train at a minimal cost and heading somewhere for a break. The idea of a family vacation in August really caught on, and gradually extended from just a few days to a week or more. Offices closed and official business was largely put on hold. Since many people couldn't conduct business as usual, they also decided to close shop, too. And thus a tradition was created.
It is still a national holiday and for many Italians it is the best month of the year: a time for vacation, family, friends and the beach. People frequently create a "ponte" (bridge) by taking off days before or after the official holiday to make a longer holiday period and today, the week of Ferragosto is the most popular (and expensive!) time to go on vacation. Hotel prices in resort areas soar to 3 or even 4 times their usual rates while restaurants in peak areas can be reserved months in advance. The week around Ferragosto is usually filled with concerts and outdoor festivals.
For us as tourists, it’s not all bad. While the beaches and seaside towns will be packed, August can actually be a good time to visit the bigger cities. There will be a bit of breathing room with many locals out of town and, while some places will be closed, plenty will be open (sometimes staffed by grumpy locals who couldn’t get away for Ferragosto because they had to work), the main tourist sites will be open, and sometimes the hotel prices in the bigger places actually go down (Italians don’t usually visit the cities over Ferragosto – they want to go somewhere to relax and chill).
But for us on that day many years ago finding a hotel room during Ferragosto was like finding a small sharp metallic object in a large pile of freshly-hewn lucerne (or a needle in a haystack).
After a couple of hours largely comprised of me parking outside a series of hotels whilst the good bride ran in and asked if they had a vacancy, only to be met with raucous laughter and the shaking of heads, eventually we ended up paying a ridiculous amount of money for a shoebox in the lovely lakeside town of Bolsena, but at least we ended up with a good travel anecdote and the knowledge that – in August in Italy – be prepared or risk the disappointment of arriving at your destination only to be greeted by a sign saying ‘Closed for Ferie’.
Rest assured that we factor in Ferragosto on all of our guided group tours of Italy so our guests aren't affected.