FESTIVAL # 1
There was a piece in my recent issue of Time Out – New York on Little Italy’s FEAST OF SAN GENNARO. Saint Gennaro is the patron saint of Naples, Italy and more than a million folks descend on Mulberry Street in lower Manhattan to celebrate his feast day.
The highlight of the 11-day celebration is the Grand Procession involving floats, marching bands, celebrants and, of course, the statue of San Gennaro being carried on the shoulders of a dozen or so strapping Italians.
Some years ago I happened to stumble on the event, and saw women pinning dollar bills onto the decorative fabric of the elevated float that carries the statue through the pedestrian-congested street food stalls, with their offerings of hot beef sandwiches, cannoli and pizza. I also saw a parish priest strolling the food stalls, taking in the aromas of grilled sausage and just-baked pizza….all the while offering his blessing to each food vendor.
FESTIVAL # 2
Reading about the Little Italy event got me thinking about another fortuitous festival experience Joanne and I had in the Puglian southern city of Bari, Italy.
That evening, as darkness set in, the center of the city suddenly burst into a spectacular light show, the likes of which we had never seen. The town square, buildings, and monuments – all lavishly and carefully adorned with thousands and thousands of tiny lights – came alive before our eyes. And suddenly a huge procession emerged at the edge of the town square, led by the parish priest or possibly the bishop. Serious pageantry ensued – including banners, military-like uniformed members of the clergy, marching bands, and throngs of locals dressed up in traditional costumes and carrying Catholic icons and relics, the most important of which was the statue of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of Bari, the protector of sailors. The priest recited a prayer for calm and peaceful seas as the procession ended at the Basilica of St. Nicola.
The food stalls? Local stuff….good local stuff: pizza, of course; the signature pasta of Puglia, orecchiette; and from the sea, grilled baby octopus.
Italians love to celebrate. Their festivals are famous throughout Italy as well as in other countries and communities of Italian emigrants around the world. They are known for their scale, their local culinary specialties, their pageantry, the veneration of their patron saints…and occasionally their eccentricity (stay tuned for that).
FESTIVAL # 3
Our Parasole colleagues visited Venice, Italy a while back as part of a Parasole Wine Tour. Unfortunately, they were there in the fall and missed one of the most stunning and colorful festival spectacles in all of Italy: The Festa Della Sensa (the Marriage of the Sea) that takes place every May.
In this Venice festival there is a procession as well, but this one takes place in the canals. Exuding bravado and flamboyance, the lead boat leaves from the Piazza San Marco and wends its way down the Grande Canal, horns blaring, followed by a colorful procession of rowboats manned by equally colorful costumed, swaggering boat-men.
The procession ends a few miles away at the church of Saint Nicolo. But there seems to be no evidence of Saint Nicholas anywhere. From what I can tell, there is only a vague religious link to the festival (called the Feast of St. Nicholas). Nevertheless, at a market close to the church revelers celebrate with Venetian Pizzas – featuring calamari, shrimp, clams, mussels and whatever other gifts the sea provided that day. Venetian pizza? DAMN GOOD!
FESTIVAL # 4
The next festival on my list flirts a bit with eccentricity.
That would be the original Feast of Saint Gennaro, held in Naples, Italy every September.
Unlike its New York offspring, the original is deeply religious. Thousands of believers gather in the cathedral as well as on the piazza in front of the cathedral to try and catch a glimpse of a cardinal bearing vials of red liquid believed to be the coagulated blood of St. Gennaro. The crowd watches anxiously to see if it liquifies, a sign that the saint has blessed the city (it usually liquifies).
Then the festivities begin. The procession leaves the church with the cardinal triumphantly in the lead and parades through the narrow streets of Naples with the statue of saint and the liquified blood in tow.
The food reward at the end? PIZZA !!! (Duh, this is Naples).
FESTIVAL # 5
Perhaps the most eccentric of Italian festivals is the annual May celebration that takes place in Cocullo, a town in Abruzzo.
It’s called Festa del Separi, or the Festival of the Snake Catchers. Yup, that’s right, snakes are involved. Six-footers.
This bizarre festival celebrates Saint Dominic, who locals believe fends off wolves, bears and illness. The snakes – lots of ‘em, gleefully handled by the town folk – are draped over the wooden statue of Saint Dominic and paraded through the streets. Whoever, at the end of the day, rounds up the most snakes is dubbed…a HERO. HMMM?
I HATE SNAKES…..YEECH !!!!!
Fortunately, they’re not on the menu. At this festival, the crowds are blessed to feast on Porchetta and pizza!