Festivals are Italy distilled. They are a community's opportunity to show off their prized cultural heritage, and our opportunity to sample the cherished history, food, and tradition of a town. A festival (also called a sagra, particularly when the festival celebrates a food) invariably introduces visitors to the best a community has to offer. The energy is high, tourists are welcomed, and it’s almost impossible to come way from an Umbrian festival without a deeper understanding of what makes this region compelling.
I write much more about festivals—especially the Spellani ones—in Il Bel Centro, but I am hopeful that this post encourages visitors to seek out and enjoy the cultural heart beating in Umbria’s celebrations.
Have you been to a festival in Umbria? Please share your experience in the comment section below! I'm thinking of this page as a work-in-progress—I'll add more festivals as they come across my radar.
Two notes: 1) Make sure you look at the months before and after your trip, as some events cross months. 2) As many of these festivals offer taverne (low-cost pop-up restaurants), please be sure to read my note about taverne at the bottom of this post.
Nero di Norcia: Vendors congregate in Norcia’s utterly charming main piazza to offer truffles, but also other regional specialties like cheese and the cured meats the town is famous for.
La Corsa all’Anello (into May): Narni locals and visitors delight in this celebration of the town’s medieval days. This totally authentic festival culminates in a horse race with riders from Narni’s three neighborhoods vying for the coveted honor of winning the silver ring.
Corso dei Ceri: A race in Gubbio where men carry a giant cero (an impossibly heavy metal tower capped with a wee saint statue) up the hill. It sounds straightforward, but tensions reach a fever pitch, and it is a wild, exuberant festival.
Calendimaggio: The storied city of Assisi spends a year preparing for its celebration of Spring. Calendimaggio is celebrated with Medieval flair, and visitors are wowed by the costumes, events, and general enthusiasm that takes hold in Assisi.
Porchettiamo: The small village of San Terenziano comes alive during its annual celebration of porchetta—the deboned, herb-stuffed, rolled, and roasted pig. The festival has a fun and modern vibe, which is quickly evidenced by the whimsical website. For the price of a movie and candy in the States, visitors can sample porchetta from ten different regions of Italy. Also for sale are other pig-related specialties, such as lesso di porchetta (the bits of the pig that are removed before preparation, and then placed beneath the porchetta while it roasts to soak up the juices—think nose, ears, and feet), all with live music and art displays.
Palio dell’Oca: This medieval jousting competition in Orvieto once involved knights spearing a dangling goose, but today’s tamer version uses a white handkerchief. Like Siena’s Palio and Foligno’s Quintana, it is a competition between neighborhoods, and thus is a vibrant way to feel the thrum of life in an ancient city.
Palio della Balestra: Many festivals in Umbria highlight the region’s medieval heritage, this one in Gubbio is one of the few that celebrates the Renaissance. Costumed archers compete for an artist-made banner. The day culminates with a procession through torchlit streets, as well as flag-throwing.
L’Infiorata: What began as a way to honor the procession of the priest carrying the eucharist has transformed into a competition of flower tapestries that cover the streets of Spello. Teams compete from sundown on Saturday until right before the procession of host-carrying priest on Sunday, creating masterpieces of design and imagination. There is a feeling of vitality and community as toddlers and grandparents work together long into the night. If you decide to visit on Sunday, arrive early. The streets are packed tight by 8 AM. Most Umbrian towns celebrate l’Infiorata, albeit on a more humble (and quieter) scale. You can see my photos from the year we participated.
La Quintana: This is a long celebration of Foligno’s medieval pomp and circumstance. The crowning glory of this festival is the Quintana, a horse race like no other. Horses run a figure “8”, and spear a small ring hat is hanging from a wooden statue of Mars at the center of the “8”. Like the Palio in Siena, the Quintana is a contest of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood sponsors a horse and rider. Spectators sport the colors and neckerchiefs of their district, which match the colors of the medieval costume worn by horse and rider (and also tie into the neighborhood symbol). It’s a spectacle unknown to people outside Umbria, and therefore it retains much of the authentic thrill that’s been lost to Siena’s more famous Palio. The event also happens in September.
Il Mercato delle Gaite: Part festival, part endeavor by the town of Bevagna to retain their medieval heritage. Craftspeople specialize in a specific aspect of medieval life (bakers, potters, bookbinders, armor hammerers, ink and paper makers). The goods are both produced and sold during the festival, with areas dedicated to animal husbandry, candle-making, even an erboista (herbalist/pharmacy). This festival has rightly popular taverne.
Umbria Jazz: The city of Perugia becomes a musical destination in July, with headliner musicians, as well as those waiting to be discovered. Music is everywhere, I challenge you not to bob and tap as you weave your way along the ancient thoroughfare.
Sagra dell’Oca: (end of July to start of August): Before we moved to Umbria, I never would’ve anticipated that there’d be an Italian hill town this passionate about geese. Eat at a taverna or a restaurant for a bevy of goose-options. We felt so lucky that on our recent April trip to Bettona, Osteria Straccaganasse still had our favorite gnocchi with goose that we enjoyed at the festival in 2015.
Hispellum: Hispellum is the ancient Roman name for Spello (as you can see lofted high on a Roman arch when you enter the town), and this is a celebration of the town’s Roman roots. There is a gladiator school for children, a gladiator show, and a procession (with flame throwers, gladiators, and falcon-carrying women). Standing and watching the procession, it’s easy to feel the full weight of the awe and grandeur of Rome.
Sagra della Lumacha: A celebration of tradition, simplicity, and taste as symboloized by the humble gastropod, the snail. A different dish is on the menu each eveining of the festival (roasted, ravioli, grilled, in sugo). Proceeds from his popular festival go towards protecting the art and history of Cantalupo, a tiny agrigultural town between Bevagna and Cannara.
Festa della Cipolla: As a town, Cannara is adorable and worth exploring, and a hoot to visit during the annual festival of the revered Cannara onion. Onion donuts—don’t knock them until you try them.
Fratta dell'Ottocento: The recommendation for this festa comes from Nancy, who lives and blogs in Umbertide. She says, "Unlike other towns who do medieval and renaissance costumes this festa takes place in the late 1800s during the Unification of Italia. Everyone dresses in costumes of the era. During the four days there is a reenactment of events associated with the unification complete with a band of Briganti taking over the town on Saturday night and changing the Italian flag to the Briganti flag and changing all the street names sometimes erecting gates to wall off the Centro. Lucky for everyone Garibaldi himself rides in on his white horse on Sunday and saves the day. There is a hospital set up for the maimed and a brothel (Briganti area) for more earthy fun." She adds that there are 14 taverne!
La Quintana: This is a long celebration of Foligno’s medieval pomp and circumstance. The crowning glory of this festival is the Quintana, a horse race like no other. Horses run a figure “8”, and spear a small ring hat is hanging from a wooden statue of Mars at the center of the “8”. Like the Palio in Siena, the Quintana is a contest of neighborhoods, and each neighborhood sponsors a horse and rider. Spectators sport the colors and neckerchiefs of their district, which match the colors of the medieval costume worn by horse and rider (and also tie into the neighborhood symbol). It’s a thrilling spectacle unknown to people outside Umbria, and therefore it retains much of the authentic thrill that’s been lost to Siena’s more famous Palio. The event also happens in June.
Sagra della Castagna: Piegaro is famous for its glass work (some of which graces the cathedral in nearby Orvieto) and its chestnuts. Depending on the year, the local restaurant may feature chestnut themed meals, and every year the giant cages of nuts rotate above roaring fires, sending the sweet and earthy smell of roasting chestnuts over the town.
Sagra di Sedano Nero e Salsiccia: Trevi is known for its sedano nero, or black celery. It looks like regular celery, but lacks “wires” which makes it an excellent snack dipped in olive oil (served gratis at the festival) or perfect for stuffing with pork and seasonings and then baked, covered with tomato sauce, as described in IBC. The festival celebrates this vanishing food, with sedano nero for sale in complementary keepsake cloth bags, and also celebrates sausage, which is typically made in fall. At the festival, it is grilled the traditional way, and makes a wonderful lunch.
Eurochocolate: Prepare to be blown away by how many ways one can mold, flavor, and decorate chocolate. Stand after stand dedicated to the chocolate arts left me hungry for the Ascolani olives sold at a stand in the piazza, but by the next morning, I wished I’d brought home just a few more liquor-filled decadent balls. This is a great way to sample gianduja, the inspiration for Nutella (more on this in IBC).
Prosciutto al Mondo: Norcia is justly famous for its salumi, and this festival is an opportunity to taste and learn about the ancient art of curing meats. There is also beers, workshops, guided tours, and music.
Festa del Bosco: Montone’s celebration of fall’s bounty, where Umbria excels gastronomically. Here you can find truffles, mushrooms, jams, and honeys. Also on display are crafts with wood, iron, and ceramics, as well as live music. Montone itself is recognized as one of the most beautiful villages of Italy.
L’Oro di Spello: The date of this festival varies wildly, depending on the olive harvest. It is a celebration of the history of olive oil, and the reliance of the impoverished Spellani on bruschetta as a means of nutritional sustenance. The highlight is the celebration in Piazza Vallegloria at the top of Spello, before the procession of olive trees (literally olive trees on carts, pulled by tractors) down the hill. The trees are bedecked with items important to olive growers, such as fish and bread. Make sure you try the vin brulee (hot, spiced wine) that is offered by the cupful from the parade carts. My photos from the 2012 celebration can be found here.
A word about taverne—
Most festivals will have taverne—pop-up restaurants either in tents or historic civic buildlings that are often only used for that purpose. These taverne are an inexpensive way to experience local color, and tap into revered food-ways. How to find a taverna? Look for signs on easels or taped to windows, with a line of people snaking out a nearby door. Though people eat late in Italy, that timing gets shoved to American standards at taverne, so you’ll see people queuing up earlier than expected. Once you’ve located a taverna, the next step is to figure out what the organizational system is, as they vary. You can do this! Look (or ask) for—
1) the cassa (register)—this is where you pay.
2) Do you order before you sit down? Look for menus and bring a pen to check off items. If this is the procedure, you’ll just need one menu per table.
3) Look for a drinks table to see if you pay for drinks separately.
4) Observe to see if you order like in a restaurant, or turn in a ticket with your items noted. Waitstaff are often town volunteers, so you may need to flag someone down to take your order or collect your ticket.
5) It can be confusing, even for Italians, so stay observant and flexible and you’ll be bringing home a memorable experience.