Denisa and I just happened to be visiting our mothers’ village during the weekend of La Festa di Santa Lucia.
If you’ve been following along, you’ll know that my cousin and I had arrived in Italy a few days earlier, and we’d gone to a brilliant agriturismo the day before. In Italy, and many parts of Europe, each town has its own feast day, depending on the saint of their local church. For example, the feast/festival of Santa Lucia (St. Lucy) is celebrated during the first Sunday of September. I hadn’t been to the festival in 25 years, and it was even longer for my cousin, so we were elated that the timing of our trip made it possible to attend the event.
Traditionally, everyone attends mass on the saint’s day. I was shocked to hear that there were 10 masses that day! Of course this isn’t normal for every Sunday, but it shows how many people attend mass on this special day. We (my cousins, Denisa and Gianfranco, Zia Francesca and Zio Carmine) went in the morning and they were all set up for the evening’s celebration and already selling food! Why was I surprised?
One of the most coveted foods at Italian festivals is called “copeta”, which may be more familiar as “torrone”: hard, nut filled nougats. Although I think that they are the same thing, apparently there is a difference. It could be that copeta is made in large chunks and torrone is traditionally made in long brick shapes? I love them both! My cousin Gianfranco bought a lovely chunk.
After mass, we went back to the village and dropped off Zia Francesca, who’d volunteered to make dinner for six of us. Meanwhile, Gianfranco, Denisa, Zio Carmine and I headed to another nearby town, Cervaro to go to the Sunday morning market. Denisa wanted to buy some cheese and other bits to bring back to the UK, and the rest of us tagged along. Cervaro was preparing for their own festival later that week.
We stopped for drinks at a lovely outdoor bar. They even gave us free snacks (notice the lupini?)
When we went back, Zia Francesca had everything ready. It was a real feast, literally!
We visited our friend, Dina, after lunch, then went to our cousin, Ada’s before the festivities for the evening. All of the fruit in the photos are homegrown by Ada and her family. I’ve never seen apples growing like this!
It was time to get ready for the festival! There is a procession that starts from the church and ends at the church, which signals the beginning of the festivities. A statue of Santa Lucia is carried and a priest stops at different locations along the way, recites a prayer or verse, fireworks are lit and the procession continues. We followed along when it passed near Ada’s house.
The first thing Denisa and I did was to buy a porchetta panino at the festival! I cannot even describe how delicious this pork is! I also had fries and a lemon ice-lolly that I used to love as a little girl! There’s all sorts of traditional festival foods, including peanuts in the shell which our nonno loved, and a live band. Of course, Italian festivals always have lots and lots of fireworks! These little towns and villages give big US cities a run for their money when it comes to firework displays! A typical festa has a small county fair atmosphere, with way better food (no deep fried pickles covered in chocolate here)!
Denisa and I ran into lots of friends and family, some of whom we hadn’t seen since we were teenagers! The next day was our last in the village. We planned to spend the night in Rome as our flight to London was the very next day. We spent our morning walking around the village, going to places we’d go as children, visiting family and just soaking it all in before we (reluctantly) had to leave.
Zia Francesca and Zio Carmine were flying out of Rome the next day, so we made a plan to stop by Frascati and Lago Albano on the way to Ciampino airport where we had to drop off our car, and they’d be picked up.
Everything was fine until my sandal broke! Yes, the ones I wear everyday, all the time. It could have been a disaster, but I was totally prepared as I had bought another pair at the Cassino market a few days prior. I felt so smug–until I tried to put on the new sandals. One of them had a strap detached, just like the one which had just burst! I had bought defective sandals!
Gianfranco to the rescue. He had cobbler’s glue and fixed both of them and left them to dry in a clamp while we had lunch. Meanwhile, I had to wear one of each sandal! Luckily I wasn’t going anywhere at the time.
I took a panoramic photo from Gianfranco’s balcony. It’s so much harder to leave when it’s a perfect day!
After saying goodbye to our rellies, the four of us were off, Frascati bound on the autostrada, and just after an hour’s drive, we had arrived. Denisa had been to Frascati before, but the rest of us hadn’t. It was lovely!
The first thing we noticed when we arrived into the main part of town, was a huge villa, high on a hill, overlooking the lower lying areas, towards Rome. Villa Aldobrandini is a family home, but the gardens are free to visit. After reading a little about Frascati, I learned that due to it’s proximity to Rome, (13 miles away) many popes, cardinals and Roman nobles built their villas here, so there are many more villas besides this one.
We parked the car and just wanted to walk around the town to see a bit of it before heading to Lago Albano, but since it was another hot day, we popped in for a gelato first. This is necessary and important business!
Next stop on our way to Ciampino airport was Lago Albano, which boasts the papal residence of Castel Gandolfo on its edge. It wasn’t very far at all, and was a relatively small, but beautifully blue lake.
We were then off to Ciampino airport. I needed to fill the car with gas before returning it, but the station I stopped at didn’t accept credit cards at the time (this is typical in Italy, sometimes things work, other times they don’t). So after a few choice words under my breath, I got back in the car and kept driving. We had a screenshot of the map and directions from Lago Albano to the airport and it was only about 15 minutes away, but never assume that this will be the case when driving in Italy. I never assume anything in Italy.
We were doing fine for the first few miles, but then I made a turn and wasn’t quite sure if we were on the correct road, so I rolled down my window to ask the nice man in the car next to me for directions. (Now, if you can, sometime when you are in Italy, try this: ask anyone directions to anywhere, and I can almost guarantee, that at one point, part of their directions will be “sempre diritto”, literally, “always straight”). Of course, the gentleman told me I was going the right direction and to drive “sempre diritto”! I love hearing it!
We reached the airport shortly thereafter and had made good time, or so we thought. All I can say is, thank God no one had a flight to catch. Since I hadn’t filled the tank, I drove alongside the airport (there was no entrance as it was the road at the end of the runway) and spotted a station. After pumping gas we headed back towards the airport, but made a right turn to drive alongside another side of the airport, thinking that we would find an entrance this way. Instead of staying along the airport, we ended up in the center of Ciampino (the town)! It was congested with traffic, lots of pedestrians, stop signs and parked cars, but I was fine–we weren’t in a rush. I asked a lady for directions and she made a sort of sighing noise and twisted her face before telling me where to go, as if I’d asked her a very difficult logic problem. The directions included lots of “turn here and turn there”, before the “sempre diritto” came up. Let’s just say, with Zio Carmine, Zia Francesca, Denisa and me all looking for the streets she named, we circled around the town twice, before managing to see a sign that said “aeroporto”. Whew, we were all quite relieved, but I half-jokingly said, “Watch, it’ll be for Fiumicino airport”, which is a larger airport much farther away than Ciampino (which we could have walked to). Everyone laughed, except me. Next thing we knew, we were on the autostrada, heading to Fiumicino! I’m not even joking!
Here’s the thing, you have to expect these things in Italy. Once you’ve been a few times, you just understand that you will never win. You’ll never change the system. It’s useless, so you have to just deal with the way it is. However–there’s only so much one can take.
At this point, I was getting frustrated and just wanted to find the way into the Ciampino airport. In bumper to bumper, rush-hour traffic, I was starting to lose my cool. My aunt and uncle were pretty quiet in the back seat, and Denisa, always as cool as a cucumber, tried to keep me calm. I finally managed to get off the autostrada, followed different signs to “aeroporti” (more than one airport ends in i, so there was hope), but once again, we were dumped onto another autostrada and more bumper to bumper traffic–with no signs to any airport! We’d get so excited when we’d see an airport sign, only to be dropped into the depths of despair when we realized we were going the wrong way, again. At one point, I started to drive in a lane to the right (car pool?) and was passing everyone, and Denisa calmly said, “You’re not supposed to be driving here, you’ll get a ticket.” Somehow, we finally managed to get into the airport, about an hour after we’d first arrived!
It had taken us about the same amount of time to go half a mile, as it had to drive from Cassino to Frascati. So my advice to you is this: don’t try to drive to the Ciampino airport without a very trusty app for directions or a GPS, and a map, oh, and a navigator. Actually, you may want to just ask a local to hop in and take you there. You honestly do not want to go through what we experienced. Trust me on this. (Did you notice there are no photos for once?)
Does this mean I’d advise you not to drive in Italy? If you’re a confident driver, absolutely not, I’d still advise you to rent a car, as it gives you so much flexibility and there are so many other bonuses to renting a car, but just realize that you may need extra time for important trips to the airport.
We said goodbye to Zia Francesca and Zio Carmine, (who had truly been good sports after this nightmare), and returned our rental car–in perfect condition!
Denisa and I then took the bus into Rome, but by now it was already getting dark. The bus was taking us to Stazione Termini, and Hotel Columbia was just a few blocks away, which was wonderful because that’s where we were staying.
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