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Window on Italy - Chestnut Heaven in Piegaro

Colleen Simpson

For ten days in October my village of Piegaro becomes Chestnut Heaven! It is our annual Sagra della Castagna from October 7 to 17. At least a week early, as if we cannot wait, huge tents suddenly appear. The sides of wooden food booths painted to resemble the walls, campanile and the piazza itself, as if mirroring the surroundings, stand ready to be assembled. All week long, big trucks arrive with scaffolding and the band stands are put together. Parking is now at a premium in every piazza in town. Large stacks of chairs and vast tables appear out of the bowels of the Circolo (the social club), soon to be filled with friends, former neighbors and people returning each year who now live in Rome, Milan or maybe just across the lake. This is reunion time in Piegaro. Each year I look forward to seeing friends who come "home" for this annual event that has been celebrated for 28 years. The village streets bustle with people moving from one venue to another as they explore the many crafts and food booths.

A sagra is like a festival, usually centered on a seasonal harvest product. In our comune there are fourteen different villages and hamlets and many have their own particular sagra: in May Pietrafitta celebrates asparagus, July brings beans in Castiglion Fosco and lamb in Fontana. Sagra comes from the ancient tradition of a sacred festival, sacra festa, the old excuses to eat and drink to excess and layoff work! Now, however, there are as many secular festivals as religious feast days.

All over Italy you see bright posters announcing sagras. Take the opportunity they present to attend and possibly eat some of the best food you will experience. The service is guaranteed to be slow as all the cooking and serving is done by volunteers. Plan to get there by 7:30pm to be first in line for food. Then the music and dancing will usually start at 9:30 and go until very late. And everyone dances! From four to eighty-four they are all out on the dance floor. Ancient couples still up for a good time dance the night away with the same moves they have made for decades. They are shadowed by children learning to dance for the first time.

In the large piazza, just outside our village gate, booths feature every kind of chestnut concoction you can imagine: fresh roasted chestnuts, an assortment of cakes made of chestnut flour and sweet pastries. Large barrel-like contraptions revolve over a fire while roasting chestnuts bounce around inside. Even the littlest child gets to sample the sweet chestnut desserts, while their elders mill around the food booths or sit around tables under tents with bottles of the young, slightly fermented, "mosto" wine to accompany their cakes and pastries.

Chestnut Vendor

The whole village is taken over with food booths, garages closed all year are opened to display hand-woven cashmere, herbal products, pumpkin sauce with hot peppers, ceramics, collections of antiques, hand-sewn designer clothing and a model train set complete with miniature mountains. Each street is filled with booths and, because new venues are set up each year, no sagra is ever the same.

For ten days, Piegaro is transformed into a hive of activity and people come each year to see what crafts are being offered for sale. From hand blown glass to hand crafted baskets, visitors are able to bring home unique souvenirs commemorating their time in our historical village. And each year, I get to wander the streets at any time of day or night to see what is happening. I am lured out into the crisp autumn each day from my cozy fire for I can't stand to miss anything! Each day brings something new.

demijohnsI luck out when I wander into one garage with a motley assortment of ancient motorcycles including two classic Ducatis. Spotting their collection of oversize glass demijohns, some with straw fiaschii woven around them, I ask the price for all. I manage to get a bargain for the six and place them in the apartments of our L'Antica Vetreria. We are "the ancient glassworks", the first glass factory in Piegaro, founded in 1292, by renegade glass artisans who wandered into Umbria from the island of Murano in the Venice lagoon.

Since Piegaro has a glassmaking tradition for over 700 years, the glass maestro, Francesco Aizzi, arrives. He sets up his oven and all of his glassmaking equipment in the courtyard of our glass museum to demonstrate this ancient skill of blowing glass. For days, people gather around to watch him blow beautiful vases and bottles and deftly create little ornaments in glass. Francesco and his wife travel from a village south of Siena to be part of our historical sagra each year. All of his glass creations are for sale.

Glass Artisan

A glass artisan at work

I look forward to collect some more treasures for L'Antica Vetreria. This year I purchase hand blown vases for each of the apartments and the villa. My guests and I are content to watch Francesco work his magic for hours. This year is a challenge for him when some of the days have sprinkles of rain. When the drops hit the molten glass it instantly shatters! He is not too dismayed for that glass gets put back into a vat inside the oven to be heated until molten again and recycled.

Children are everywhere, running along the streets holding cones brimming with freshly roasted chestnuts, brandishing a wooden sword or proudly playing a drum; this is the time that parents indulge their children with gifts. It is hard to resist the enticement of GiamPiero outside his shop with his display of children's toys!

Midway through the first week, I am stopped in the piazza by my good friend, Omar, who tells me that he will be modeling Dolce and Gabbana at a fashion show the next night. I arrive on time, to find the tent completely packed with folks to watch our young people from three years to thirty-four years model the fashions furnished by local clothiers. I am absolutely amazed at them as they strut along the runway that juts out into the audience. They are absolutely gorgeous and look like pros! If I did not recognize most of the kids, I would think that they are models from Milano. When I arrive backstage to congratulate Omar, he confides that they only got to practice one evening in preparation. That tells me a lot about Italians and fashion. They are all naturals at this fashion business and they are all pros from the time they are babies.

Fashion Show

Children on the runway

The mayor's son, six-year-old Giorgio, steals the show as he prances down the runway with his hair fashionably spiked to perfection. As his mother is a well known photographer, he is not fazed by all the cameras clicking away. He loves the spotlight. As does my good friend, Omar, even backstage!

Even though the rains come and the cold of autumn suddenly descends during the second week of our Sagra, hoards of folk arrive each day for food and fun. It is really an occasion to mingle with old friends and celebrate the end of summer.

MarketBefore dawn on Sunday morning, the last day of our Sagra, huge market trucks appear, crowding into every space they can fit. It is a miracle to see how they squeeze through our tiny cobblestone streets into the central piazza. They also line the street just outside the village gate, which is closed to traffic. Even though it is raining most of the day, we can walk under all the awnings just about the whole way from piazza to Circolo without getting wet. The rain does not dampen everyone's enthusiasm for this huge "mercado" (market day). There really are great bargains in wool, mohair and suede boots. At least that's what I purchased.

I make friends with the young owners of one of these trucks, Alan Catanzaro and Daniela Bocciarelli, after they gave me a 30% discount. They tell me that they travel around to the larger towns and cities with their big truck that opens up into a huge display of racks of clothing covered by an immense awning; it even has two changing booths with mirrors inside. From Gubbio to Castiglione del Lago to Assisi and to special sagre like ours, they are itinerant merchants six days a week.

Christmas LightsEveryone gets into the spirit of ten days of celebration, eating, dancing, reunion with friends and family and the hard work of preparing and serving food each day! On Monday after the festival, I emerge to find the streets are eerily empty. Everyone is indoors recuperating. I am amazed that not one scrap of paper or debris is left on the cobblestone streets. It takes a few days to dismantle the tents, the dance floor and all the booths and then we all feel that autumn has officially arrived. Now it is back to our normal village life. At least until the next celebration, which will be the first of December when bright lights will be hung along every street in anticipation of Christmas!

Other Italian Festival (Sagra) Stories

The Umbria Sagra Survival Guide

Festival of the Frog

No Sagra for You

Colleen's Window on Italy is a series of monthly articles on Slow Travel. Read the article "Colleen's Window on Italy - Introduction" for more information.

Colleen Simpson lives most of the year in Piegaro, Umbria and operates L'Antica Vetreria (www.anticavetreria.net): a villa and four apartments for vacationing guests. At other times, you can find her in beautiful Seattle.

© Colleen Simpson, 2011

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