By August 15th, average highs in Rome will have been above 30 degrees Celcius for two months (that’s 86 Farenheit, for my homeboys), and Romans are more than glad when Ferragosto, a truly unique holiday, finally signals the go-ahead to pile in their cars and leave the boiling city behind for a few weeks. But before leaving, they throw a massive citywide party that brings every woman, man, child and dog into the streets and squares, guaranteeing great memories for the weeks to come.
Ferragosto seems simple enough at the outset: first, it’s reasonable to assume that the name is a combination of “ferie” (holidays) and “agosto” (August) – although more savvy researchers may dig deeper; second, it’s standard practice in cities around the globe to call it quits in August to stave off heat exhaustion and let the concrete air out a little bit. When I worked in New York, my office closed for 2 days around Christmas, and 2 WEEKS for “August.” There, though, and in other cities that don’t celebrate Ferragosto, it seems like August heat culminates in a sort of anti-holiday, when the city has silently hemorrhaged so many people that it’s no longer capable of celebrating anything.
So the difference then, in Rome, is the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto, the massive party that brings the whole city together, outdoors, for one last hurrah under the sun (then stars, then sun). It gives neighbors one last chance to brag about vacation plans and lovers one last chance to steal a moonlit kiss. But arguably, the most important function of modern-day Ferragosto is to punctuate (with multiple exclamation points!!!) the summer. No one in Rome wakes up one day and wonders why the city is empty, and no one on vacation worries that they might be missing the fun back in town. Everyone revels in the heat of summer together on Ferragosto, and then they go their separate ways without (in most cases) regret.
What Happens on Ferragosto?
Events leading up to and down from the 15th of August are never in short supply, but if you’re in Rome, the big attraction is the Gran Ballo di Ferragosto. Streets, squares, corners, alleys—anywhere with a square meter (11 sq ft, for my homeboys) will set up an amp and some speakers and take its position as one of the hundreds of ambassadors of the Gran Ballo. Every square has something different to offer, from the most grandma-disapproved hip hop to honest-to-goodness country line-dancing. Larger squares will host dance performances all day, starting with local after-school programs and getting more and more professional (or absurd) as the sun goes down. If you know what to look for, you may spot the next K-Fed honing his moves. Most importantly, this massive dance party’s theme is participation, so if you hit the streets, you’d better be ready to get your own personal dance on.
After the Exodus
After narrowly escaping the revelry of the Gran Ballo you’ll be ready for a little R&R, just like the natives. But rather than joining the endless string of cars leaving the city, heaving C02 into the atmosphere by the cubic ton, it’s best to plan a few relaxing days in the Eternal City. If your own Roman apartment has a view, you can slowly enjoy an espresso or two and watch the city’s main arteries empty into the countryside. Post-Ferragosto, the outlying districts of the city will be an attraction in themselves, rendered unrecognizable without the cacophony of car horns and steady buzz of people in transit. Take the opportunity for an afternoon on Pincio Hill, or even Monte Mario (the city’s highest peak), to take in the view and contemplate the eerily romantic silence of the city below. If you start to feel lonely, climb down to the city center where you’ll find many fellow visitors congregating and swapping Ballo stories. Just be careful whom you share your videos with – they might end up on YouTube.