Ferragosto, August 15th, is the D-Day of vacation season in Italy, the day when everyone who is in any way mobile gets out of the big cities and heads to the mountains, the beaches… anywhere but home. The month of August is itself pretty much a writeoff in Italy, and the middle of August is the apex of the whole phenomenon. It’s a holiday, nominally the Catholic festival of “The Assumption of Mary“, but it’s not in the slightest a day for churchgoing. Apparently, even in Roman times, there was a holiday on approximately the same date.
Some Italians will tell you that everyone takes August off because it’s so hot, but the truth is that July is a hotter month, and the first heat wave, which usually hits in June, is the harshest, because it’s often still quite humid, and you’re not used to the heat yet. The real reason that August is vacation month is that once upon a time, when business revolved firmly around factories, it made sense for everyone to take the same time off, and it fed on itself. Even in the modern internet-book-delivery business where I last worked in Italy, many of the people who sold us books which we sold on to consumers were closed in August, so that even if we took orders, and wanted to stay open, the volume of books shipped dropped dramatically. It’s a chain reaction: if your suppliers are closed, you can’t really operate, so you close too. The cafe where everyone went for lunch then has no customers, so they close too, and so on, to the point where many people can’t do their jobs and so may as well go on vacation themselves.
Slowly, but surely, it’s changing, but I recall my first years in Italy, when nearly one out of every three shops were closed during the height of the vacation season. I recall reading about a hospital that wanted to farm out the patients in one wing to another nearby hospital, so that everyone could go on vacation.
Not being one to follow the herd, I always enjoyed staying in Padova in August. It empties out, so that it feels like there’s more breathing room. It’s nice and summery, hot even, but not oppressively so, and it feels just a bit dryer than the muggiest days of June, when you often can’t see more than a few kilometers due to the sticky heat haze. And the pace of everything is quite relaxed for once; during the rest of the year, Padova is a very busy, even frenetic city, with a sense of “things to do” (well, outside of the public offices, but that’s another article for another day). People drive quickly, walk quickly, and are generally quite active. In August, though, all the bustle and activity relocates to the resort towns along the coasts, where you can go if you miss the traffic jams and fancy staying in a concrete box of a hotel built during the 60ies boom (that you will pay extra for in August). Empty Padova, on the other hand, felt like it was “mine”, with everyone gone. Some times of day, it was so deserted that I could have taken up the whole road to ride my bike along. One year, I went for a bicycle ride at lunch time on August 15th, already a time of day when traffic usually dies down some as everyone stops to eat, and I quite literally had the roads entirely to myself. I went an hour without seeing a car on roads where there is usually a fairly steady stream of them.
There’s also a sense of camaraderie – “survivorship” – for lack of a better word, amongst those who remain. Since everyone is gone, it’s often a good time to reconnect with those who you normally don’t see so often, and August’s hot, languid evenings are perfect for a nice, relaxing dinner amongst friends.