August 15th, commonly known as Ferragosto, is an Italian National Holiday. As we speak Rome is empyting of its residents. There’s less traffic, you can find a parking spot, in some streets there’s not a soul to be seen.
The holiday is an ancient rite introduced by Emperor Augustus – Feriae Augusti or Augustus’ rest – devised to give labourers a good long rest after the toil of the summer harvest. Nowadays, Romans leave their offices in the city to head to the beach or the mountains. Except that of course it’s not just 1 day. The holi-day of Ferragosto seems to seep into the entire month of August. My other half bemoans the fact that he won’t be able to take a month’s holiday this summer. Most of his friends disappeared to the blue seas of Calabria weeks ago. Many Italians resolutely cling to the tradition of holidaying for the entire month of August. Shops and businesses close their shutters and leave signs indicating to their customers not to bother returning until at least the 25th.
Explaining this to Anglo-Saxons is always interesting. As Beppe Severignini says, “It’s a festival that puzzles non-Italians. It’s not clear whether we are forced to go because offices and shops are closed, or whether we don’t want to forsake a collective ritual.” For people who often are limited to 2 weeks of vacations a year, the prospect of a leisurely month of nothing but beach seems extravagant in the extreme. “But this is the height of the tourist season!” they complain. “How can they afford to lose the business?” Whilst this might be true, (and I know that some find it incredibly frustrating) there is something refreshingly carefree in the determination to holiday, to stick to tradition. In August this is what happens. I have written before about the Italian attachment to the ways things have always been done. And in this case I couldn’t agree more. I admire the unwillingness of the Italians to change their holiday traditions just to suit the demands of international tourism or business. Why give in to the notion of living to work rather than working to live? As and when it suits. At least in the summer. It’s just too hot to do anything in Rome in August other than mooch about feeling sweaty and tired. You’re no good to anyone when it’s so hot. Times are changing however. Pressures to remain open mean that it is now possible to shop, eat and enjoy Rome in August, if you can take the heat. The new Zanzara bar in Prati, Rome highlighted this trend, somewhat mocking the holiday closure notices.
Especially in the centre, most businesses will stay open, so many tourists will perhaps not notice that Roman residents have been for the most part replaced by foreigners. For those tourists (and grumbling workers forced to shoulder the burden of everyone else’s holiday) here’s a great list of restaurants that are open in August and will surely take away some of the pain – see Romewise‘s list (updated 2016). Don’t forget the bars and restaurants along the river too. Lungoiltevere is a summer only event. Catch it while you can.